UK: How AI could transform wealth management

Added on 14/03/2017

‘What keeps Watson a machine and us human?’ So asks a student from Imperial College about IBM’s famed cognitive AI platform at the recent annual Turing lecture on beneficial AI in London. Dr Guruduth Banavar, the leader of IBM’s artificial intelligence development arm, Watson Technologies, answers the question by offering a qualification: ‘Let’s look at the tasks that somebody does and map that to a business process – which ones are fundamentally human-oriented? Reports Spears. 

He gives the role of a financial adviser as an example, where gauging clients’ risk tolerance is kept to the human adviser, but the management of portfolio structured on the risk input is often a job for the robots. That way, machine intelligence acts as an assistant while humans perform ‘higher value’ tasks – very much what the super-intelligent AI-helper Jarvis is to Tony Stark (and latterly, to Mark Zuckerberg, too).

It is the Industrial Revolution 2.0, but instead of building mechanical muscles we are creating ‘mechanical minds’, says Alexander Flamant from Notion Capital, a London-based venture capitalist. ‘From the 1750s we have been building [machines] be able to augment the very manual heavy tasks. Programmes like Watson are our new best friends — these devices help us move through the tedious, almost mechanical tasks that we have to do day to day — whether you’re working in finance, accounting, or as a doctor or a lawyer.’

Indeed, ‘Augmented Intelligence’ is the new buzzword to describe the relationship between AI and its creators – a man-machine co-evolution rather than the aggressive takeover by steel and wires that Stephen Hawking fears. As Banavar puts it: ‘They work with humans, rather than as humans.’

The good news is London is punching above its weight in this arena. While the large funding grounds are in Silicon Valley, Flamant is bullish about the City as the testing ground for new ideas (and not for nothing has London been described as the Silicon Valley of fintech). Competitive salaries for AI engineers aside, its ‘vibrant’ start-up ecosystem turns ‘ideas into companies’, while universities in the rest of the UK ‘churn out top grey matter’ to fill in the remaining skills gap. And the sales of AI houses like DeepMind and Magic Pony, valued at hundreds of millions of pounds to tech giants like Google and Twitter, demonstrate this.

AI could even very well be the country’s new financial weapon, post-Brexit, with ‘hundreds’ of other AI start-ups flexing their virtual muscles.

Unsurprisingly therefore, HNWs and family offices are ‘open-minded’ about investing in this space, as private capital has ‘perennially been an innovator in financial technology’ says, Rupert Phelps, Smith & Williamson’s newly elected partner. ‘There are a number of families who are involved right at the front end,’ he says, giving the AI robot-maker FANUC (valued at an estimated $50 billion) which is backed by a family office in Japan as an example.

So as software engineers and programming talents prosper, will existing AI-illiterate human advisers become obsolete? IBM’s Banavar says that while there might be an initial hump of ‘adjustment and disruption’ where jobs are lost, it is no different from what happened during the discovery of the ATM. Then the role of bank tellers became increasingly redundant, while simultaneously creating relationship management as a career in financial services. ‘They realised that the real value of people is to manage relationships with customers,’ says Banavar. ‘They started giving them new skills.’ And the result? ‘The number of employees in banks actually increased because the demand for the new services that banks came up with increased.’

It is all very well serving the regular high street customer, but what about HNWs and UHNWs who require a more nuanced level of services? Phelps believes AI has the potential to create ‘real efficiencies’ in the wealth management world where investments are becoming more complex. But the AI-HNW partnership can only work if robotic help is seamlessly matched to the needs of an individual family. Success will be achieved, he adds, if ‘it can be matched through human interface and the extraordinary ability for a human mind to think outside the algorithmic or the predictable — and also with the emotional intelligence to understand their clients.’

So could it be that, post-Brexit, London might just be the powerhouse for AI innovation? Could HNWs have their own AI assistant like the fictional Hollywood billionaire Tony Stark? Will programmes like Watson become every real-life billionaire’s best friend? Ask Siri.