What the future of automation means for personal identity

This week, the Wall Street Journal made many headlines itself, facing a backlash for publishing an op-ed^ that suggested Dr. Jill Biden should drop the “Dr.” in front of her name. The author’s reasoning: it “sounds and feels fraudulent” and that “a wise man once said that no one should call himself ‘Dr.’ unless he has delivered a child.”

I’ll leave my personal outrage aside, but instead offer a quick history lesson: the word Doctor comes from the Latin “to teach” and was originally applied to religious teachers, advisers scholars and at the start of the 14th century*. It was only later that physicians started using the term and this wasn’t common practice until the 1600s.

For those unfamiliar with Dr. Jill Biden’s biography, she’s a college professor with two master’s degrees and a doctorate in education, the latter earned at the University of Delaware. It’s worth noting that Dr. Jill Biden plans to keep her day job as a college English professor after her husband becomes president. She will be the first FLOTUS in history to pursue a career and keep a paying job while living in the White House.

But why is the internet in uproar? After all, as Juliet once said to Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Names represent our identity. And they have a tremendous significance to their owner. They’re precious. I, for one, couldn’t part with my surname after getting married. A large part of my identity comes from my family and to part with my Dad’s name was a nonstarter for me in any relationship. I cringe when people refer to me by my husband’s name, so imagine how Dr. Jill must feel about a distinction she worked hard for and earned.

“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” — Proverb

For some of us, our names can be traced back to our ancestor’s profession. After 1066, the Norman barons introduced surnames into England and the practice gradually spread. Trades, nicknames, places of origin and fathers’ names became fixed surnames. A blacksmith named John became John Smith. A man who made his living grinding flour from grain took the name Miller. A delivery man, or a person who drove a cart pulled by oxen, often took the name Carter. You can see where I’m going with this.

History tells us that our profession and identify are very much interlinked. Although today you might not change your surname to reflect your profession, it’s still very much a part of you. It’s also one of the reasons that some people find robotics and automation so terrifying – who are you without your job? What if lawyers, accountants and bankers have their jobs replaced by robots, algorithms and artificial intelligence?

But the fourth industrial revolution, as it is sometimes referred, won’t spell the end of human touch. It will cut costs and time, but these savings could also be used to subsidise the costs of skilled humans in other areas. Change occurs all the time and few of us make horseshoes or arrows today. And just think what a blacksmith would have made of an IT manager or a social media influencer! With change also comes opportunities.

The Smith & Williamson Artificial Intelligence fund looks for companies whose business models incorporate AI, rather than just making it. During the UK’s first lockdown, early in the pandemic, manager Chris Ford talked to us about the use of AI in not only our personal lives but also medication.

The growing trend of automation is also a key theme in the AXA Framlington Japan fund. Manager Chisako Hardie has managed the fund for 10 years and focuses her research on those sectors likely to benefit from long-term growth. Robotics is another key theme in the fund. For example, top ten holding Cyberdyne**, produces highly innovative rehabilitation robots.

Similarly, Baillie Gifford Japan Trust invests in robotics, particularly in the car and electronics industry. Manager Matthew Brett commented, “I think what’s held robots back has been the difficulties with controlling them – the difficulty with the autonomy of the robots. But the improvements in machine vision and AI make it possible to use robots a lot more widely than they’ve been used in the past.”

The future is inherently unknowable – that much is clear after 2020. But I, for one, look forward to a Dr. FLOTUS in the White House. A role model for the next generation, bringing the role of the first lady into the 21st century.


^Source: Wall Street Journal, 11 December 2020, Is there a Doctor in the White House? Not if you need an M.D.
*Source: Merriam-webster.com, Online Etymology Dictionary: www.etymonline.com
**Source: fund factsheet, 30 October 2020

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