September 20, 2018

Artificial empathy, is tech the solution?

Charles is a former PPA Business Journalist of the Year, specialising in AI and Fintech. He began his career as editor of Euro Business Magazine and now writes on the rise of AI and algorithms in business.

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How do you convince shy and embarrassed consumers to seek the advice they need? It’s a titanic challenge for the financial advice industry – and one it is currently failing.

Right now, the Great British public are victims of their own inertia.

Only a quarter of British adults have any sort of investmentproduct, and just one in three in the British population has a cash ISA. ‍

The Social Market Foundation estimated British savers missed out on £90bn over five years by keeping money in low interest savings accounts, rather than investing in shares.

But could technology provide a cure for this aversion to action?

The evidence from a parallel industry offers a remarkable lesson.

The field of mental health advice is suffering from its own problem of shy consumers. The people who need help are reluctant to seek it.Fortunately, there has been a breakthrough in the form of robo-advice to help anyone too embarrassed, confused, or traumatised for human interaction.

A computerised interface offers advice. And the evidence is astonishingly positive.

Academics at Stanford University have developed the Woebot,an online service programmed by experts in a variety of fields to lead patients through a programme of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

The format is simple online lessons – there is no technology to learn.

And the effectiveness? A team from the Stanford University School of Medicine ran a trial on Woebot with 70 young volunteers. Half underwent two-weeks of Woebot therapy, and the other half merely received an ebook on mental health, as a control group. The Woebot triumphed, delivering a significant reduction in depression. The control group showed no change. The study concluded: “Conversational agents appear to be a feasible, engaging, and effective way to deliver CBT.”

The Woebot clearly works, and it follows an early study from New Zealand. A tool called Sparx addressed depression in teenagers. A University of Auckland study published in the British Medical Journal found SPARX achieved measurable and significant improvements for users. The academics concluded: “SPARX is a potential alternative to usual care for adolescents presenting with depressive symptoms in primary care settings and could be used to address some of the unmet demand for treatment.”

The founder of Woebot, Alison Darcy, formerly with the Psychiatry Department at the Stanford School of Medicine offered this rationale for her product:

“We always have this rhetoric if you’re going through a tough time, ‘Oh you should talk to someone.’ But so many people aren’t actually ready to talk to someone or have that ability for many reasons. So that’s the beauty of something like this it really is truly scalable and truly accessible and truly non-judgmental. If you remove the human completely you really do remove the stigma completely.”

The echoes with financial advice are remarkable.

Availability is a second factor for both. Potential users may not be able to slip away during normal work hours. Some rural users may struggle to find a high quality professional in their locality. Robo-advice changes the equation, opening up advice to anyone who needs it. “Even at 3am”,as Darcy points out.

Cost too. The NHS quotes £40 to £100 a session for private CBT therapy. Too expensive for most people. The same is true for financial advice – many employers would love to offer staff bespoke pension advice, but balk at the outlay. By contrast, robo-advice can be supplied to thousands of users at far lower cost.

And most promisingly, the quality of robo-advice, for both mental health and financial advice, will only rise over time. User feedback will be adapted into the design. More experts can be consulted, and A/B tests conducted. Iterative design and machine learning from millions of cases will ensure a constant curve of improvement.

The potential is phenomenal. Robo-advice can change mental health services for millions of unserved consumers. The same is true for financial advice.

Being shy, time-poor, or merely confused will no longer be a bar to getting expert advice.

For neglected consumers – an overwhelming majority – it's a huge breakthrough.

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