Smart, Stupid, Redundant

‘Ideas worth spreading’ is the seductive logo of TED. For those unfamiliar with the acronym, TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. If you go online and type in TED, just above reviews of a film about a degenerate talking teddy bear, you’ll find a link to a compendium of talks on a staggering variety of topics by scientists, authors, entrepreneurs and others of similar ilk.

The Guardian started the year by co-opting an enlightening, if mischievous, article on the TED talks by Benjamin Bratton. Bratton’s argument is that TED and by extension a great deal of literature on technology exhibits “too much faith in technology and not nearly enough commitment to technology.”

He accuses the TED constituency of deliberately neglecting the complex dynamics of problems in favour of smart aphorisms and of attempting to delegate the time required to understand difficult issues, to multiples of processing power. The implicit assumption underlying such behaviour, he argues, is that as, “our machines get smarter…we get stupider.” With the recent announcement of branch closures and job cuts in retail banking being blamed on digital and mobile technology, it’s behaviour that financial services seems in danger of replicating.

Over the last five years, unless you live under a rock, or have been locked in an investment bank for sixteen hours a day, you will have noticed a frenzy of articles on how Algorithms, Mobile technology and Big Data are transforming financial services. Algorithmic trading, loosely defined as “using programmed systems to automate all or some part of the trade cycle” is nothing new. Renaissance Technologies, one of the world’s largest hedge funds has been employing algorithms for profit for over twenty years. What’s new is the scale and speed offered by the latest technology.

Mobile technology refers to the provision of financial services to phones and tablets. If we consider the increase in mobile phone usage across the globe in the context of the “democratization of credit” , the next step in a 200-year continuum that has included tallies, gold coins, cheques and credit cards. Then the onward march of financial serves to mobile is inevitable.

Meanwhile, Big Data holds out the promise of a data nirvana. That all the data captured by social media, ecommerce and the sensors that surround us as well as the bits and bytes currently sitting idle in redundant databases can be aggregated, analyzed and pummeled into information that can provide business advantage.

Its an easy assumption to make that if algorithms are automating the selection and process of trading then there is less need for portfolio managers and operations staff. If customers are accessing their bank balances and paying bills using their mobile phones and tablets then there is less need for branches or customer service staff. If Big Data means more information as well as quicker and better analysis of it then this can be translated into less managers and staff required to gather that data. As machines ‘get smarter’ not only do we ‘get stupider’, we also become redundant.

Mike Ogazi