Independence Day: For us or the robots?

It’s been 20 years since Will Smith saw off hordes of attacking aliens in the sci-fi blockbuster Independence Day. On this 4th of July, should we be worried about a different kind of invasion? (First published on the Dolfin website on 4 July 2016.)


The robots are coming. Technology-watchers have been saying for some time that robotics and artificial intelligence have taken several more steps forward over the past few years, meaning that machines are on the way that will be much cleverer and more powerful than previous generations. As they spread through industry, the effects could be dramatic.

Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England, said recently that up to 15 million jobs in Britain were at risk of automation, with the lowest-paid becoming the most exposed. University of Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne have estimated that 47% of jobs in the US could be replaced by computers by 2033, while the McKinsey Global Institute suggests that less than a decade from now robots could produce the same output as 40–75 million human workers.

For many people, the natural response to these figures is anxiety and fear. However, there also are reasons to feel reassured. When it comes to menial tasks, we have been over this ground before. Machines have been replacing the labour of humans for centuries — but, whenever they do, new opportunities for humans have arisen. There are more people in work today than ever before and we also have more machines and more automation than ever.

WHO NEEDS YOU?

Furthermore — and it is debatable whether this is reassuring or even more concerning — human labourers are still cheaper than robots… most of the time. Globalisation and global population growth has opened up a vast pool of affordable labour that has made labour-saving technology redundant before it is even invented. After all, why would a company invest in R&D to create a machine that does the work of 100 people when it is cheaper to simply recruit 100 workers?

But technology is advancing, and human labour is not always easy to come by. In the US, Amazon’s demand for seasonal, unskilled warehouse staff (it recruits an additional 100,000 temporary workers to meet the rush of Christmas sales) is running into supply problems. The company is already employing robots in its warehouses — how long before they become advanced, dexterous and intelligent enough to make those 100,000 temps redundant?

Machines are taking on roles in professions such as the law, accountancy, and finance

It’s no longer just bar workers, warehouse pickers and machine operators who are likely to see their jobs taken over by machines in the not-so-distant future. Disciplines such as machine learning and data science have now advanced to the point where machines that have cognitive skills and the ability to make decisions based on complex information are starting to make their presence felt. This is enabling machines to start taking on roles in professions such as the law, accountancy, finance, marketing and journalism that, until now, have remained largely unaffected by the changes that have affected many industrial jobs.

MONEY MACHINES

Some of these opportunities are appearing in the wealth management sphere, where Dolfin is focussed, says Amir Nabi, Chief Operating Officer of Dolfin. But Nabi isn’t worried that a robots will put investment advisors out of work. “Technology is really our friend,” he says. “It’s a tool that’s going to help increase our capabilities and our productivity and ultimately help us to make clients better off. We have put technology at the heart of how Dolfin operates because it will enable us to do things more efficiently and deliver a better experience and higher quality services for our clients and partners.

Give clients the best of both worlds: part-human, part-machine

“Our economies have become steadily richer and more productive thanks to new technologies, and our living standards are much higher than they were one or two generations ago, which is why I believe we need to embrace the possibilities that technology and automation offer. That doesn’t mean that change will be easy or smooth but it’s important to realise that it brings opportunities as well.”

Dolfin sees great opportunities in ‘robo-advisory’ services that use intelligent technologies to help clients explain their financial circumstances and preferences, but it also believes that human relationships will continue to matter a great deal. The aim, therefore, is to create the right blend of the human skills with software engineering and data science to come up with a proposition that is effectively part-human, part-machine. “The idea is to give clients the best of both worlds,” says Nabi.

BIG DATA, BIG BENEFITS

We often underestimate how much machines have already done to make people’s jobs and lives more rewarding and less stressful,” says Nabi. He believes that there is no reason why this trend should not continue. Given that access to data is likely to increase considerably as new systems are implemented, he also argues that this should help to ensure financial products are safer and better designed, which will make them more valuable for clients.

It’s about learning to solve complex problems and making decisions

This is all brought much closer to realisation as intelligent machines start to roll out. “What’s different now compared with a few years ago is that machines are really starting to take on tasks that need more cognitive types of function. So it’s not just about automating processes: it’s about learning to solve complex problems and making decisions.

“If you have that in addition to the human touch, you have the building blocks to create truly smart systems and that’s really exciting.”


Before it’s here, it’s on the Dolfin website.

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