Robo-advisors to Humans: We Come in Peace

A white robot smelling a purple flower

Like many potentially disruptive innovations, robo-advisors and other fintech applications tend to evoke as much industry fear as excitement.

When it comes to digital-age technology in general, the most extreme worry revolves around the so-called Singularity—a phrase coined by Google’s Ray Kurzweil to describe the moment when machine intelligence surpasses human mental prowess. But you don’t have to believe computers will take control of the world to worry about the future of financial services. After all, according to numerous studies on the risks posed by smart bots, financial-sector employees have more to lose than workers in other skilled industries.

Why? As Nathaniel Popper pointed out in his 2016 New York Times article “The Robots are Coming for Wall Street,” financial services revolve around processing information, which screams out for automation as “the stuff of digitization.”

Automation anxiety, of course, is nothing new. As San Francisco-based venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale noted last year, “it is an ancient phenomenon, and includes a lineage of distinguished British thinkers dating back to the dawn of the Industrial Revolution.” Indeed, long before computers invaded the workplace, John Maynard Keynes penned Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. Published as the Great Depression was crushing the world economy, the essay highlighted the economist’s concern over a disruptive force he called “technological unemployment” being created by the “discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.”

Simply put, Keynes’ imagined a future in which technological advancement freed people from pressing economic cares and he was worried that society might suffer a “nervous breakdown” due to the creation of too much leisure time. That isn’t why finance professionals fear automation today. Like everybody else, they still need to work for a living. But what if the robots come in peace? Could we use them to usher in a next-generation model of financial advice that has lots of room for a human touch? In other words, instead of fearing financial robots as industry Terminators, what if the best way forward was to embrace them as productivity enablers. After all, if all concerned can do that, it is still possible to find a middle ground—without a major regulatory overhaul—where the best fintech applications help both advisors and clients, creating better outcomes for everyone.

Some stakeholders, of course, may not want to work together on a mutually beneficial way forward. But after several sessions with thought leaders over the summer and fall of 2017, Ivey Business School research found overwhelming evidence that all sides could—and should—join forces. Indeed, in our conversations with bankers, dealers, vendors, start-up executives, consultants, regulators, academics, students and advisors, everyone seemed to agree that digital technology created an opportunity for better advice. What was missing was a common motivation to make it happen, not to mention a framework that would lead to proper implementation.

“Given that the perceived barriers to a wider adoption of digital advice are fewer than previously believed, it’s hard to explain why there isn’t a bigger push to move ahead with Next Gen Digital Advice.”

The beginning of that framework—and the obstacles the industry still needs to overcome—are laid out in Financial Advice in Canada: A Way Forward, an Ivey paper written in collaboration with Ivey’s Scotiabank Digital Banking Lab, which looks to foster the kind of discussions needed to take financial advice in Canada where it needs to go. One of the most important discoveries was the affirmation that while certain tasks should be automated, there will always be room for human advisors.

Simply put, some things people will always do better, such as soothe a panicked client’s nerves, or figure out when the market is being lied to. But providing machines have the right data, they can clearly help flesh-and-blood advisors do their jobs better, just like medical technology helps surgeons in the operating room—without performing the operation itself. Computers, for example, can do analysis, complex calculations, and due diligence quicker and more efficiently than people. Financial technology can also free up human hours, so a dealer or wealth manager can focus on client relations or development instead of menial tasks he or she isn’t really that interested in anyway.

It’s a win for clients, who are already used to doing so much on their phones or tablets. With new technology, their finances can become a part of their busy digital lives and help them stay on top of saving while promoting a better understanding of their financial health.

In fact, much of the basic technology needed already exists, and while it will continue to evolve, what’s required is currently proven, available, and generally inexpensive. It’s not the technology itself that may pose a barrier to digitized advice, but rather the lack of infrastructure needed for everyone involved to share information.

With a few exceptions, the type of technology financial firms would need to automate a part of their business already has the regulatory go-ahead, so the regulatory hurdle some industry players worry about isn’t a roadblock after all. The onboarding process is already automated for many dealers, for instance, and algorithms to generate predictions and advice are in place. If something goes wrong, the firm will be liable, just as it would be if a mistake was made by one of its advisors.

Some concern remains going forward, however, around open data (and who owns it), as well as regulatory silos that make cooperation difficult. Licensing logistics and upgrades will also need to be figured out as the role of advisors evolves.

Given that the perceived barriers to a wider adoption of digital advice are, in fact, fewer than previously believed, it’s hard to explain why there isn’t a bigger push to move ahead with Next Gen Digital Advice.

One of the issues seems to be that the players don’t entirely trust each other, and aren’t able to agree on who should be pushing the change.

Economic incentives for some of the bigger players to volunteer to upturn their business models also need more research, as they aren’t completely clear at this stage either.

And it remains unknown how excited clients really are about the possibility of this change overall. They may love their devices, but that doesn’t mean they’ll jump on the fintech bandwagon with the enthusiasm required to really motivate advisors to meet that demand.

But while all changes bring some trepidation, what industry players need to understand is that when it comes to fintech, failure to act isn’t an option.

The industry is ripe for disruption, and the change is here.

The good news is that it’s not as scary as many feared. But if industry players don’t act soon, they will get left behind and miss out on the chance to work with regulators, technology experts, and clients to improve outcomes for all.