Google, TurboTax and WebMD: The robotization of society

Thought Leadership on Employee Benefits-Risk & Reward presented by Tyler Eure at TriBridge Partners.

I love everything the movie-going experience offers: mounds of popcorn smothered in streams of butter, buckets of ice-cold Coca Cola that could quench a camel’s thirst, how a theater magically fills with 50 movie critics when the previews begin, and that hair-raising Dolby Digital surround sound. I can’t get enough.

This past week was my first trip to my neighborhood theater since it underwent renovations earlier this summer. Upon entering, I first noticed the once-expansive ticket counter was now a row of self-serve kiosks. There had been kiosks in the lobby before so this wasn’t a drastic change. They also redesigned the concession area to include two self-serve soda fountains. Half of the theater was now automated, practically overnight.

As I stood there watching each person in front of me become oriented with this new process, I began to think about the impact robotization will continue to have on my industry.

Changing landscapes

Our endless pursuit of efficiency and cost-cutting has led to a list of increasingly complex services and products provided without human intermediaries. By removing the human interface, more responsibility— and liability — is placed on the consumer.

Historically, the benefits of cheaper products and faster services have outweighed the potential costs. Press the wrong button, get the wrong soda. An annoyance? Certainly. A financial or legal catastrophe? Not remotely. But what happens when the stakes are higher? What happens when the implications reach farther than our taste buds?

Attorneys, accountants, doctors and financial advisors have all seen the landscapes of their professions change in recent years as robotization and do-it-yourself digital solutions have provided individuals cheaper and quicker access to those professions’ knowledge and expertise. LegalZoom, TurboTax, WebMD and financial robo-advisors have all disrupted their respective industries. Consumers continue to leverage these resources, seeking free or inexpensive guidance.

The human connection

The issue is that technology is not yet advanced enough to interpret the complexity of human nature. We are not objective beings. This opens the door for mistakes that far outweigh the short-term benefits of cost savings. You know immediately if you get the wrong soft drink. A mistake on a will drafted online very well might not be discovered until the person’s death. Similarly, a careless mistake while filing one’s taxes online could take years to uncover, resulting in costly back taxes or legal expenses. Or both.

Robo-solutions can be extremely valuable resources. However, we, as consumers and professionals, have to be diligent about when to leverage their capabilities. By definition, these automated services are programs. They simply execute functions. They do not think. They do not remember. They do not draw upon previous experiences and apply that knowledge to a unique situation. And — most critically — they are confined to the information provided by the user.

Currently, the technology simply does not exist for these do-it-yourself digital solutions to completely supplant their human counterparts. For our most complex needs, the costs of a mistake are simply too high. But for how long will we maintain this advantage?

Google and Apple are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into developing cognitive assistants — artificial intelligence advanced well beyond the capabilities of Siri and Google Now. Toyota announced last year that it is committing two billion dollars to its research and development. As artificial intelligence continues to advance, so too will the complexity of the jobs it intends to replace.

Until technology is able to autonomously interpret the range of our subjective tendencies, humans will remain the best resource for addressing our most complex situations. It is important that we, as advisors and service providers, leverage this advantage while we still have it.

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