I returned to work in January to read several predictions for the financial services industry in 2018, with many commentators talking about artificial intelligence and how it won’t be long until we’re all replaced by computers. However, contrary to the many sages and futurists out there, I’m not sure I agree.
In my view, the judgement and value of an experienced mortgage broker can’t be replaced by machines. I think the importance of artificial intelligence and automated advice is overstated. Before I explain why, I just want to clarify that I’m not denying the importance and benefits of technology. Clearly, computers can do some things faster and more accurately than humans, but I think it’s important to make clear distinctions as there are some decisions they struggle with.
Mortgages are unique
When assessing complex situations or a borderline application, it’s crucial to examine the detail of the people involved. If someone is self-employed, a contractor, or relatively new in a job you need good judgement rather than relying solely on machines. You need a human being who can ask questions and provide the type of knowledge that only comes from an experienced broker. Technology is part of the process but it can’t see the full picture. Changes in society and the world of work mean that future earnings and living costs are not as easy to predict as they once were.
That’s why it’s good to talk.
Decision making versus judgement
Last July, an article in the Harvard Business Review called ‘How Artificial Intelligence will change the way we make decisions’ discussed whether there would be more or less work for humans in the future. The key point was the distinction it made between decision making and judgement. Illustrating this was an example of a credit card network deciding whether or not to approve transactions.
The mortgage industry can learn from this.
All card networks want legitimate transactions to pass through and fraudulent transactions to be declined. They use artificial intelligence to decide whether attempted transactions are fraudulent. If this were done perfectly, the network’s decision-making process would be easy: decline if and only if fraud exists. However, even the best technology makes mistakes.
What does this have to do with mortgages I hear you ask?
Well, the people who run credit card networks know from experience that there is a trade-off between detecting every case of fraud and inconveniencing the user. And since convenience is important in the credit card industry, that trade-off is critical. It means that to decide whether or not to approve a transaction, the network has to know the cost of mistakes. How bad would it be to decline a legitimate transaction? How bad would it be to allow a fraudulent transaction? There is a judgement required on where the line is drawn.
I think that most of us would agree that we want machines to prevent fraud. They can take decisions in split seconds to stop foul play and I’m happy to be mildly inconvenienced if the machine is set to err on the side of caution. With mortgages however, it’s completely different, as sound judgement is more important than rapid decision making.
This is where the mortgage industry has to reflect on the use of robo-advisors and technology. I saw recently that one organisation had launched an online service to residential and buy-to-let customers. This service will offer an initial search function, based on the customer providing basic information, which will give some indicative product details. The customer then has the option of providing further information online for a more tailored search and full mortgage illustration, or they can be transferred to speak to an adviser. In principle, it sounds like an improvement on the belief that only automation can work.
However, I think those predicting the future are wrong to believe that machines can do the majority of jobs currently undertaken by humans. The mortgage industry needs technology to help with its decision making, but should not rely on it alone. There will be some providers who depend on their IT to complete straightforward mass market applications, but sound judgement and a thoughtful approach in the more complex cases will always be needed. And with the way the world is changing, it’s likely that there will be a greater need for judgement rather than for rapid decisions and efficiency.
Advice is irreplaceable
I think a mortgage broker’s service is irreplaceable. Consumers will always appreciate the good judgement and experience of someone investing energy and commitment into helping them secure their new home or review their mortgage arrangements on their existing home.
Getting it wrong for somebody could have considerable consequences. This is a decision that could change a family’s long-term future. It could be the difference between securing a property they love or the crushing feeling of despair at missing out on a place they wanted to call home. A place where their children would grow up and where they would celebrate many Christmases together. Seen this way, it’s clear that a mortgage isn’t just a financial product, but a critical ingredient in helping people to fulfil their ambitions and realise their desires.
If you went to work early in January worrying about the future of the advice industry, I’d urge you to relax and question those emotive headlines.