The compounding growth of computing power suggests it’s only a matter of time before computers have the same brainpower as a human being. And don’t look now, but computers may surpass humans’ cognitive powers sooner than we think.

In our industry, the shift can be most keenly felt in the robo realm. Will robo advisers make human planners obsolete? Science suggests we shouldn’t bet against our nature as empathetic beings. Indeed, even though computers’ blazing advancements might give us a shudder, advisers’ capacity to empathize with their clients may be their greatest asset — and defense.

ROBO PLANNING’S ROLE
The capabilities of technology are increasing at an exponential rate. In the context of computers, the phenomenon has been dubbed Moore’s Law, after Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, who observed that the number of transistors on a computer chip — and therefore its computing power — were doubling every 18-24 months.

In the early years of Moore’s Law, the number of transistors went from from five to 10, and then from 1,000 to 2,000. Now, however, it’s about going from 1 billion to 2 billion, and from 4 billion to 8 billion. Now, a doubling every two years means we’ll add as many new transistors to a microprocessor in that period as we added over the past 50 years since we created the first computer.

From the perspective of an adviser — or any human being — this is troubling. As humans, we may still be learning and advancing, but we’re not getting smarter at a pace that can possibly keep up with the growth in technology. Simply put, the computers are getting smarter at a faster pace than humans are.

For some, this has raised the question of whether we’ll reach a point that has been dubbed the singularity — the moment at which technological/artificial intelligence actually surpasses human intelligence, beyond which it’s unclear whether or how the human race would co-exist with even-smarter computers. Given the pace of exponential compounding, computers could catch up quickly, even though right now they’re still quite far behind.

Even if we act to stop this eventuality — or perhaps the pace of Moore’s Law begins to break down before we get there due to the laws of physics — the challenge remains that the rapid growth of technology could potentially have a dramatic impact on the role of advisers.

While today’s robo advisers are really just operating as robo allocators — providing a focused asset allocation service, and not holistic financial advice — it’s only a matter of time before the technology expands, all potential financial planning recommendations are mapped into a decision tree, and the rise of true robo planning begins.

ADVISERS’ CHANGING ROLE
Notably, though, the potential rise of robo planning still wouldn’t necessarily mean an end to advisers. After all, the original story of the Luddites — now a colloquial term for those who fear and oppose new technology — was that they were self-employed weavers in 19th century England who feared the end of their trade when new technologies such as stocking frames and power looms were introduced. This opposition culminated in the Luddites actually destroying the new weaving machinery. In the end, however, the technology just created new and different jobs — including for operators of the new stocking frame and power loom tools — and did not result in so-called technological unemployment.

Nonetheless, the looming threat of ever-advancing technology, especially when it grows at a compounding, exponential rate, does raise the fundamental question: What is the role of the human adviser in the future, if/when the computers become as smart as we are?

In his recent book “Humans Are Underrated,” Geoff Colvin explores the natural outcome of this trajectory, where it seems to be just a matter of time — and a few more doublings of computing power under Moore’s Law — before there’s nothing left a knowledge worker can do that a computer can’t do better, faster, easier and cheaper.

Yet as Colvin points out, the missing element in the equation is the way our brains are hardwired. We are social animals, having evolved to survive by working together. As a result, we are programmed to relate uniquely to other human beings.

In fact, recent research has indicated that when human beings talk to one another face to face, the electrical activity in their brains literally begins to synchronize. Just shaking another person’s hand causes an electrical experience in the brain, and afterwards, we judge the person as being more trustworthy and competent.

What all this implies is that in the long run, it may not be a matter of what computers can do in lieu of humans. Instead, it’s about the fact that there are some things we may always prefer to get or do by engaging with other humans. That’s the way our brains are built to operate: to have relationships with other human beings.

THE IRONY
For the second half of the 20th century, economic and productivity growth were driven heavily by so-called knowledge workers, a term coined by management guru Peter Drucker in the 1950s to describe how the primary asset of workers was no longer their ability to do physical/manual labor, but instead their ability to learn and apply their knowledge.

Yet the irony of this rise of the knowledge worker is that one of its primary creations was the computer. Early on, this piece of technology helped make us more efficient, but now it threatens to do knowledge work better than knowledge workers themselves.

For instance, IBM’s Watson supercomputer recently diagnosed in 10 minutes a case of rare leukemia that had stumped doctors in Tokyo for months. And computers are getting better at doing a lot of legal work — e.g., combing through discovery documents — than the lawyers themselves. In other words, knowledge workers may have created the tool that ultimately makes them irrelevant.

Yet as Colvin notes, this doesn’t mean that all the work humans do will be made irrelevant. Instead, it simply implies there may be a shift — just as in the past, when we went from physical labor workers to knowledge workers, in the coming decades we may transition again, from knowledge workers to relationship workers.

The key distinction of being a relationship worker is that even if the computer knows all the facts and information, we just don’t relate to and take in the information in the same way when it comes from a computer. Even if the computer can make the diagnosis, we want to hear it from another human being — whether it’s regarding a health problem or a financial one.

In fact, research from McKinsey on the future of work is already showing that while technology is replacing production jobs from factories and increasingly replaces routine transactional tasks, job growth continues to be robust in fields that involve interpersonal human relationships.

WHERE ROBOS BREAK DOWN

When it comes to financial planning in particular, one of the greatest challenges in helping clients achieve their goals is that they don’t even know what their goals are in the first place, and may not even be capable of envisioning how their needs and desires may differ in the future. Even if and when goals are determined, life happens and our needs change, which means goals are often dynamic.

Furthermore, sometimes our greatest challenges are the unstated ones: the client who has a spending problem where the spending is really about a desire for social status or a way to cope with other emotional issues, or the one who insists on keeping a concentrated investment in a single stock that was inherited from a parent because selling the stock would mean severing the last remaining connection with his deceased father.

In other words, in real life our financial problems and goals are constantly changing, and in not always rational ways, which means sometimes it’s not actually a solvable problem in the first place. It’s difficult for a computer to answer the question when the client doesn’t even know the right question to ask. The role of the planner is to help the client change behaviors if/when/as necessary to navigate the emotional journey.

TEACHING EMPATHY
In a world where the value of an adviser is increasingly about the uniquely human relationship — and not just the expert knowledge that a computer can replicate — the trait of empathy becomes crucial.

Empathy is the ability to discern what someone else is thinking and feeling, and then respond in an appropriate way. It’s about being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, and consider from their perspective what they must be thinking and feeling in order to formulate the right response.

Research in the world of medicine — another domain of knowledge workers who are increasingly becoming relationship workers — is already finding that empathy plays a crucial real-world role. One study found that patients are more likely to follow through on a doctor’s recommendation when the physician exhibits greater empathy, while another discovered that doctors with low empathy are more likely to make errors — ostensibly because they miss important information by failing to understand the patient’s perspective — and subsequently are also more likely to be sued for malpractice after bad medical outcomes.

And despite the conventional view that some people are simply born more or less empathetic than others, it turns out that empathy can be taught. The medical industry has been practicing empathy training for years, where doctors role-play patient scenarios, are required to focus on what the patient is likely thinking and feeling, and then receive constructive feedback about how they did.

This core template for teaching empathy — explain how something should be done, show it done well, ask trainees to do it in simulated patient/client situations and then provide feedback — is being applied in a wide range of industries.

Colvin points out that even the military is recognizing the importance of empathy training, where wars in the future aren’t just about killing people, but being able to win the hearts and minds of the population — which is all about human skills. In fact, the origin of the famous Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known as Top Gun, was an empathy-training–style program of putting fighter pilots through intense, lifelike situations, recording everything that happened and giving candid feedback, which taught the pilots how to better understand the enemy’s perspective in order to anticipate and respond appropriately. Training in empathy is also becoming a keystone of police academy training.

EMPATHY AND ADVISERS
Unfortunately, while financial planning has increasingly been establishing the technical competency foundation of what it takes to be a professional — e.g., by completing the CFP educational requirement and passing the CFP exam — there is remarkably little education or training for the empathy skills that should be built on top.

Historically, this wasn’t necessarily a problem because most advisers started out as salespeople, and if their empathy skillsets were poor and they couldn’t develop a rapport with clients, they failed out of the business in the first year or two. The natural survivorship bias meant that most experienced advisers already had a natural empathy skillset, and later they went back to school to build up their technical competency and earn their CFP marks. But advisers never had to practice the relationship and empathy side of financial planning.

Slideshow
75 leading planning schools: Where are they located?
Find out where our annual list of financial planning degree programs at colleges and universities fall on the map.

Now, however, students can graduate from college having already completed their CFP education, then work for several years as a paraplanner — only to find that to move up, they must learn the relationship skill of empathy and also how to do sales and business development. Yet there’s a dearth of training in how to do this.

There are at least some programs that offer sales training for advisers, but almost none for empathy training. And while some advisers end out learning on the job as associates, not all senior advisers are very good at teaching and giving feedback, especially when survivorship bias means empathy skills were probably natural for them to begin with.

And ironically, the recent CFP Board changes to water down the experience requirement means it’s even less likely that the typical adviser will have had the opportunity to learn or develop empathy skills from real-world experience.

Nonetheless, the march of technology — and the way it’s already rippling through other professions such as law and medicine — suggests that it’s only a matter of time before true robo-planning arrives, and just being able to recommend strategies and tactics to clients won’t be enough. Financial planning will shift from being about delivering expert information and solutions to a focus on empathy skills and being a relationship worker.

Notably, a baseline level of technical knowledge will still be relevant, as it’s difficult to apply empathy if you don’t also understand how the rules and mechanics work. But this will simply be what clients expect, not what they pay a premium for. Instead, our relevance will be the ability to truly show empathy and connect to clients, because that’s the part the computer cannot replace, whether it’s helping people assess ever-changing goals and desires, or assisting them to change their behavior and actually achieve those goals.

In other words, even if robo planning software can tell people what to do, Colvin’s work suggests that we’ll still want and need to hear it from another human being for it to be truly actionable, because that’s simply how our brains are hardwired to respond. At least, that’s how it will turn out if planners actually get the empathy training necessary to survive and thrive in a truly relationship-driven future.

So what do you think? Is robo planning so far away that it’s not even worth considering? Or is it an inevitability? Will the rise of robo planning made planners irrelevant, or just shift their role from knowledge workers to relationship workers instead? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Register or login for access to this item and much more

All Financial Planning content is archived after seven days.

Community members receive:
  • All recent and archived articles
  • Conference offers and updates
  • A full menu of enewsletter options
  • Web seminars, white papers, ebooks

Don't have an account? Register for Free Unlimited Access

Michael Kitces

Michael Kitces

Michael Kitces, CFP, a Financial Planning contributing writer, is a partner and director of wealth management at Pinnacle Advisory Group in Columbia, Maryland; co-founder of the XY Planning Network; and publisher of the planning blog Nerd’s Eye View. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelKitces.