Humans vs. Robots

There is much discussion in the financial planning world about the disruptive impact of technological advances on the industry, particularly the possibility of the “robo-advisor” supplanting the human advisor as individuals’ primary source of financial services. Robo-advisor is the term the financial media use to describe an array of digitally delivered services that leverage technology to automate the bulk of financial advisory service for individual investors. These services purport to provide a low-cost, technology-dependent approach to personal financial life, with the early adopters primarily being millennials.

With various permutations of the robo-advisor idea coming from venture capital–backed independent firms, and now from some larger, traditional custodians, traditional advisors and CPAs providing wealth management services are left wondering how this will impact their livelihoods. Many millennials and some Generation X investors view the traditional advisor as a “middleman” that can be cut out of the transaction by an online automated alternative. Very few human advisors are excited about this disruption. This dynamic needs to change, for the sake of everyone involved.

Many human advisors will need to change their traditional business models in order to remain relevant and profitable. Older advisors who intend to retire in the next few years may have the luxury of denial about the impending impact robo-advisors could potentially have on their business. Anyone that wants to remain vital, however, will need to avoid falling victim to technological progress, not by fighting it, but by embracing it. The impending battle between human advisors and robo-advisors is unlikely to be a winner-take-all event; the future will more likely reflect a mixture of the two. Combining the unique aspects of human thought that artificial intelligence cannot replicate, while outsourcing the segments of work that lend themselves to digital automation and management, will provide the best of both worlds.

The Lesson of the Luddites

Between 1811 and 1816, self-employed textile workers refused to accept the positive aspects of technology and resisted adapting to a new method of doing business. These self-described “Luddites” (after prototypical example Ned Ludd) became victims of technological progress, despite all government attempts to intervene. The lesson is clear: the technological juggernaut progresses whether people want it to or not. A person may choose to either climb on board or be caught in its path; sidestepping progress is not an option.

Thinking from an economist’s viewpoint can help CPAs adapt to change, as can evolutionary biology. One of the most interesting features of the human race is its ability to preempt the evolutionary process of natural selection through innovation and creativity. Most organisms evolve through random mutation in their genes that make them better adapted to their environment. Humans, however, can create solutions to anticipated problems within a single generation. Machines and artificial intelligence also lack this capability (at least for now).

Human beings play basically four roles in the capitalist economy: creator, producer, trader, and consumer. Most people play each of these roles during their lifetimes, but focus on only one in their professional life. The angst associated with technological progress is largely due to the fact that computers, robots, and artificial intelligence can potentially replace human beings in these roles. Robots can easily replace humans in many aspects of the producer role, such as manufacturing. Algorithms and automation can easily replace humans in many aspects of the trader role, such as investment portfolio management or retail sales. Technology can even take on aspects of the consumer role through the material maintenance needs of machinery or the consumption of data by computer programs.

The one area where human beings still maintain a major advantage over machine behavior is the role of creator. This role may be the most important of all, as it is the progenitor of economic growth and the basis of humanity’s success as a species. Although it is possible that rapid progress might be made in this area on the part of artificial intelligence, it does not appear likely that it will overtake the sheer versatility of human thought in the near term, if ever. The basic economics of philosopher and political economist Adam Smith therefore say that this task should be allocated to people, while many of the other tasks for the producer, trader, and consumer may be better allocated to technological automation in order to make the economy more efficient.

Career-oriented people in any industry should focus on performing high-value–added tasks and developing creativity-oriented skills that computers cannot currently perform well in order to secure a spot in the global economy. The lesson is to use technology to automate menial tasks in order to free up time and resources to support creative pursuits.

Career-oriented people in any industry should focus on performing high-value–added tasks and developing creativity-oriented skills that computers cannot currently perform well in order to secure a spot in the global economy.

Adapting to the Environment

Applying these sentiments to the financial planning industry lends itself to a few potential revelations for traditional human advisors. Here are a few ways traditional financial planners can adapt:

  • Don’t spend a lot of time doing things that a computer can do faster, cheaper, and better. For example, many of the tasks of investment planning, particularly portfolio management, can be automated.
  • Do not base fees purely on assets under management (AUM) unless those fees can be justified through significant added portfolio value that cannot be replicated by a robo-advisor.
  • Focus on providing high-value services that a computer cannot do well, such as analyzing data and providing highly tailored recommendations on issues related to complex financial planning and wealth management topics. Estate planning, succession planning, employee benefits, and creative investment planning are excellent examples.
  • Charge directly for services provided. If advice is provided on complex issues related to comprehensive financial planning on an ongoing basis, charge a monthly or quarterly retainer financial planning fee instead of charging a fee based on AUM. This will clarify the difference between what a human and a robo-advisor can provide.

Optimal success for human advisors lies in combining the best aspects of human thought with the cutting-edge aspects of technological ability. Treat technological advancements as enhancements to human ability rather than threats to it. Human advisors that do this will ensure their longevity and secure a place in the global economy.

Martin E. Levine, CPA, ChFC, CAP is chief financial officer at 4Thought Financial Group Inc., Syosset, N.Y.  (
Jesse Mackey is chief investment officer at 4Thought Financial Group Inc., Syosset, N.Y.  (