TUE, 10 NOV 2015

If you want to know whether you’ll have a job within the next 20 years, why not see for yourself by searching the BBC’s helpful ‘Will a robot take your job?’ tool.

It’s based on research by Oxford University’s Michael Osborne and Carl Frey who suggest that, by 2035, as many as 35% of us could find that our job has been automated.

We’re in the throes of what MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee describe as the ‘second machine age’.

Because the robots are coming, Brynjolfsson and McAfee’s research shows that automation is already resulting in a widening gap between job growth (there are fewer of them) and productivity (which is staying the same).

And the drivers behind this second machine age mirror those of the first – the Industrial Revolution. A machine costs less, is more efficient and can replicate its task with unerring accuracy compared to humans.

The difference is that – this time around – the relentless advance of technology is putting a whole new stratum of workers in peril: professionals.

# ‘The robots are coming and they’re after your job.’ Discuss.

Of course you already know this because, right now, there is a lot of talk about ‘robo-advice’ –the role algorithms and artificial intelligence (AI) will play in the advice process.

But it’s not a topic that’s confined to financial services. The advance of the robots and AI is exercising the minds of people involved in all sectors of the economy and society.

And it’s not difficult to see why.

In 2014, I completed Google’s web-based digital marketing course Squared Online. As part of the programme I submitted a proposition outlining a way that technology could alleviate the pressure on the NHS – in particular GPs.

Is it inconceivable, I thought, that we’ll use an app to let us enter our symptoms, have our priority assessed, and book an appointment – initially conducted via Skype or Facetime – followed up with an e-prescription, sent to a registered smart device, which uses location services to route the e-prescription to the nearest pharmacy in advance of arrival?

Well apparently not. I’ve since discovered a US start-up – Bright.md – which has developed software that is already doing a good deal of that. It’s a triage tool used by US doctors in community practices which, Bright.md claims, can reduce the cost of healthcare visits by up to 80%.

Examples like these are, in part, why predicting the effect of technology on the future of face-to-face advice is tricky, because the consequences for jobs, careers and employability in the long-run aren’t all that clear.

The debate is split between two camps: one side fears the ‘hollowing out’ of traditionally middle class work, and the other side thinks that technology is a catalyst for new types of work that don’t even exist today.

It’s a debate perfectly illustrated by Intelligence Squared’s excellent debate ‘The robots are coming and they will destroy our livelihoods’.

What is clear is that the combination of artificial and real human intelligence opens up new ways to design services that could change what we mean by ‘face-to-face’.

In fact, the ability to conjure the presence of a real person is woven seamlessly into services already.

For instance, Amazon’s Fire phone offers instant ‘Mayday’ video chat. Online-only mBank – just 15 years old and already the third biggest retail bank in Poland – enables video chats with bank representatives.

US insurer, Esurance, offers accident assessments via webcam and Fiat’s Live Store lets people look around a car showroom without being physically present.

# The art of artificial intelligence

Where the clarity becomes more confused is where humans finesse the grunt work carried out by algorithms.

Because algorithms are everywhere; they can spot patterns in data to anticipate your behaviour and preferences – conjuring up suggested tracks on Spotify and purchases on Amazon.

And do you ever catch yourself wondering whether you’re talking to a real person or an avatar when you use online chat for help on a website?

It’s a combination of algorithms and humans that mean, for many more people, having your own stylist is now possible (see thechapar.com and thread.com).

But is the advance of the algorithm something to fear? After all, they’ve been a feature of financial services for years. What about the algorithms behind stochastic modelling of portfolios or the calculation of lifetime cash-flows? Have those algorithms improved or limited the art of financial advice?

It’s the idea of the art of the adviser or the surgeon or the solicitor or the accountant or the journalist – an idea which crops up in the Intelligence Squared debate – that is, perhaps, crucial to the fortunes of financial advisers.

Because, right now, there’s only so much that technology can competently do.

And I sense that this is the source of suspicion in UK financial services at the moment about how rational algorithmic solutions can address the emotional dimensions of managing life savings.

There’s an argument that the debate about robo-advice is perhaps a generation early (notwithstanding the fact that the duration of a ‘generation’ in the digital age is considerably less than in the pre-Web era).

Generation Y – that is people born between the early 1980s to 2000s – are reaching their thirties. They’ve grown up in a world where information and knowledge have only ever been a click away.

It’s easy to imagine that Gen Y – whose ability to seek information online is second nature – will be more financially literate than ever before. Combine that with their fluency in technology, plus an instinct to default to digital services, and the room for robo-advice services designed for younger investors, with smaller a amount of money to invest, is apparent.

But I think the GP example from earlier highlights the big opportunity: how emerging technologies can – when carefully crafted to create a compelling customer experience – provide a genuinely enlightening service.

Because technology that mimics the function of financial advice – but forfeits the art – are likely to offer little more than a transactional process with go-faster stripes.

For instance, what happens when the Gen Y user of a robo-advice service reaches the crossroads where more sophisticated advice really matters?

That’s where the long-term value for user financial advice lies: in the equivalent of technological triage.

Because it’s the combination of artificial intelligence and real expertise, empathy, instinct and intuition that is potentially powerful.

After all, canvas, paints and brushes are just canvas, paints and brushes. It takes an artist to transform their potential into art.