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January 19, 2021
Even as technological development has accelerated in the past several decades to a near breakneck pace and people across the world cheer advancements that make everyday life easier, there’s a constant tension surrounding the growing role machines play in our lives.
From the privacy issues raised by listening systems like Amazon’s Alexa to the growing discussion of Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms’ role in spreading disinformation, society at large is starting to recognize that technology in general, and artificial intelligence (AI) systems in particular, need to be better monitored and integrated into our lives. The financial services sector, for its part, faces a similar reckoning with the rise of robo-advisors: however, choosing to work with AI rather than against it may offer both sides of the financial planning divide a chance to benefit.
Since the earliest days of automation, there has been concern about machines eventually supplanting the jobs humans currently do, leading to not only economic instability but social concerns about surrendering control of our lives. Naturally, this leads to animosity and the sense that machines everywhere are “taking our jobs” and that they must be prevented from doing so. During the 2008 financial crisis, when confidence in the financial services system was severely shaken, several companies arose on the basis of using what they called “robo-advisors”—in actuality, collections of computerized programs and algorithms—that would quickly, efficiently, and dispassionately offer portfolio building to a wide array of clients. The appeal of machine-based advising was attractive to many investors who no longer trusted human advisors to manage their money responsibly, as well as to clients who didn’t have enough assets to attract human advisors looking for high-net-worth clients; in this way, robo-advisors helped democratize portfolio building. But many in financial services attacked the robo-advising model as an overly simplistic system that couldn’t possibly match the nuance, experience, and intuition that make real people so valuable long term. They saw robo-advising as direct competition that was seeking to replace them, and robo-advising firms, for their part, did nothing to dissuade them.
Since then, however, the attitude in the financial services industry toward robo-advisors has markedly changed, based on a realization that is occurring among professionals in various fields: while machines may be able to do certain things better and faster than people, they often lack a “human quality” needed to make wise decisions that may for one reason or another buck traditional logic. Machines just can’t think outside the box like we can (yet); therefore, even though they can and should be used to perform jobs humans can’t accomplish on their own, they require guidance and a human touch to work to their full potential.
The fact is, robo-advisors undeniably provide many advantages to savvy financial planners. They can sort through and process vast amounts of data to make decisions that are more timely and more informed than any human financial advisor could hope to produce. Robo-advisors can also be tailored to specific tasks, from risk management to client goals or investment outcomes, to provide specialized and laser-focused advice in fields like estate planning, life insurance, retirement planning, and portfolio allocation. Above all, they can lower costs to firms that utilize them by offering a cheap and efficient service of high quality that is an asset to any business, as well as cut down on the possibility of human error. It seems many in financial services are beginning to recognize this: according to a 2018 poll, almost 90% of wealth managers surveyed said they viewed robo-advisors positively. A growing number of firms use their in-house robo advisors to perform various tasks like assessing new clients and making financial wealth management recommendations based on a variety of potential situations and factors.
As humans, we’re notoriously slow to accept large-scale change, and this is true both of the robo-advising trend and in the financial services industry. Robo-advisors can help with this by giving wealth management professionals the hard data they need to adapt more quickly to changing financial environments and ensure continued profitability for firms.
AI and Wealth Management: A Mutually Beneficial Partnership
While it’s true that AI technology like robo-advisors may not always be able to offer the flexibility and imagination of human wealth managers, it’s equally true that robo-advisors offer enormous benefits to firms committed to harnessing their computing power. Therefore, the most obvious solution to the robo- vs. human advisor dilemma would seem to be a partnership: just as a human miner could find a new line of work in guiding a mechanical drill, robo-advisors don’t need to compete against traditional wealth management firms when they could instead work together. Once financial professionals begin to consider the benefits of using robo-advisors as part of their operations, the possibilities for helping clients meet their financial goals are endless.