Quantitative futurist Amy Webb Quantitative futurist Amy Webb.

Although artificial intelligence and other technologies may not be playing a significant role in the financial services sector today, advisors would be wise to be open-minded about embracing them to at least some degree to help prepare for the future.

That was one significant takeaway from the Schwab Impact conference at the San Diego Convention Center, both from a media panel Tuesday on the state of the industry and a keynote Wednesday by Amy Webb, a self-described “quantitative futurist” who’s the founder of the Future Today Institute consultancy in New York.

“I know everybody in this room has been hearing a lot about artificial intelligence — so much so that it sounds like a buzzword,” Webb said. “You’ve heard all about artificial intelligence and blockchain and probably quantum,” she said, calling them the “ABQs of financial services.”

But “it turns out we don’t actually know what we’re talking about” when it comes to AI, she said, adding: “When it comes to AI, there’s a tremendous amount of misplaced optimism and fear.”

“It’s not your fault,” she told attendees. After all, she said: “We’ve been living with the idea of artificial intelligence for so long that it’s hard for us now to escape these unbelievably visceral stories that we’re read about and that we’ve seen. So, when we think about AI, our brains automatically go to” the “Terminator” movies in which “AI is a robot from the future that’s going to come back and murder us in our sleep.”

Or our perception of AI is instead based on “very positive utopian ideas about the future, where all the data and all the AI will just solve all of our problems [and] this magical dashboard will do everything for you.”

However, she said: “In reality … it turns out AI’s already here. It just doesn’t show up the way that we were all expecting.” What we have with AI now is narrow intelligence, a system that’s “capable of performing a single narrow task as good or better” than we can on our own, she explained.

But there were recent advancements in AI that advisors should be aware of, including research company DeepMind’s AlphaZero computer program that mastered the ability to play games involving strategic decision-making against humans by learning what human trainers had previously done and then came up with its own strategy and learned to collaborate with other systems, she said.

What that means is “we’re now in the realm where artificial intelligence is making choices, not just decisions,” she said. And what we should all now be asking is who are the people who get to choose the data sets that those AI systems use, she noted.

Advisors should be concerned about that because “this constellation of signals [is] shaping your future, but these things are so far outside the realm of what you would normally be paying attention to that they become existential risk factors for you at some point,” she said.

“With so much disruption and so much uncertainty, you may say to yourselves” that it’s no longer possible to make “long-range plans,” she said. That’s problematic because if you’re only concerned about short-range issues, “you’re losing sight of what comes next and you’re ceding control over what comes next,” she noted.

For example, if you work with retirement funds, “we know that we’ve got a generation of baby boomers who are going to be heading into the great beyond and we have a generation of people coming up behind them who may not have the same kind of savings” as the clients behind them, she noted.

She warned that “if you’re not working both ends of this time cone at the same time, somebody else is going to drag you into the future in a way that may not work out for you in the long term.”

“Right now, humans are much more agile than machines [and] you can respond much faster to fluctuations, to weird market situations, to outliers than machines can — and it’s going to be that way for a while,” she predicted.

Regardless of how far AI develops, “people are always going to need other people,” she pointed out.

“An algorithm is not going to look you in the eye and make you feel secure abut your future,” she said. Nor is it going to “sit with you and brainstorm different strategies and ideas,” or “develop a personal relationship with you to earn your trust.”

But “change is on the horizon” and it’s “very likely some of your business models are going to have to change to meet” those advancements, she told attendees. “Failing to plan is planning to fail,” she warned, adding: “I believe right now, because we are pathfinders, we have an opportunity to shape the future that we all want to live in.”

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