A very special episode. Alex Jensen follows up on Austrade‘s Webinar on How innovation in digital financial advice is improving wellbeing, customer engagement and social responsibility. Alex talks with Craig Keary, the Asia Pacific CEO of Ignition Advice. And Dr. Toby Walsh, Dr. Walsh has authored two books on AI for a general audience, Machines That Think the Future of Artificial Intelligence, and 2062: The World that AI Made. (Available in a dozen languages including English and Korean). Dr. Walsh is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Scientia Professor of AI at UNSW Sydney and CSIRO Data61. He is a Fellow of the Australia Academy of Science and was named on the international “Who’s Who in AI” list of influencers.
This conversation occurred after the webinar and covers many key topics for Korean Wealth managers as well as people looking to get ahead in their own investment plans:
- To what extent does Squid Game represent the financial struggles of Koreans?
- What is causing the growing gap in wealth in Korea, and what can be done about it?
- What is the state of AI, and how can it improve financial wellbeing?
- What is the difference between digital advice and roboinvesting?
- How can technology empower both the institution and the investor?
- What does customer-centrist design mean in regard to digital financial advice?
- Are there any ways in which the pandemic has improved the situation?
SPECIAL EPISODE Alex Jensen speaks Alex talks with Craig Keary, and Dr. Toby Walsh, on innovation in digital financial advice and the role of AI in our financial futures.
Alex Jensen: Welcome to the latest edition of Koreabizcast with the KBLA. It’s Thursday, October 21st. I’m Alex Jensen. And it’s great to be with you. We have something different for you today because yesterday I had the chance to not only attend a webinar hosted by Austrade, but to speak with two other participants, Craig Keary, the Asia Pacific CEO of Ignition Advice. And Toby Walsh, the author of machines that think the future of artificial intelligence, and 2060 to the world that AI made, both of which are available in Korean among other languages by the way. Before we get that double interview, let me remind you to check us out via LinkedIn, just search KBLA and send us a message to connect our community is growing, and we’d love to welcome you to.
Alex Jensen: As promised, then, we now connect with Craig Keary, Asia Pacific CEO of ignition advice. And if that name sounds familiar, well, we did speak to him before the webinar. But now also we’re joined by Professor Toby Walsh of UNSW who specializes in AI. Thank you both for being with us.
Toby Walsh: My pleasure.
Craig Keary: Our pleasure. So, Alex.
Alex Jensen: Now this webinar took place just as the Netflix show ‘Squid game’ has taken the world by storm. And it feels like every journalist around the world is trying to find a squid game somewhere. So, apologies in advance for doing that. But there is a serious financial message underpinning the show, particularly the extreme debt story that so many people find themselves in around the world, but particularly in Korea, as it is a Korean show. Have either of you, or both of you seen it?
Toby Walsh: I’ve seen the trailer. And I’m trying to prepare myself for the experience of seeing the full thing.
Alex Jensen: Craig, can I gather from your hesitation? That is also a no?
Craig Keary: It’s a no, I’ve said similar to Toby, I’ve seen the trial out. But I’ve been informed that I’m not what I’m not allowed to be watching any more major Netflix series. So, I need, by my wife. So, I need to sneak it in when she’s not around.
Alex Jensen: Totally understood. And you know, with the success of Parasite, I took months longer than everyone else to see, I think once there’s already hype around a show, it can have the perverse effect of taking them longer to getting around to seeing if you’re not part of that initial wave. But I did see it. And there is this very desperate message there. You can imagine it, having just seen the trailer that you’ve got this pot of cash building and building and people feeling desperate to even risk their own lives to access that. It might sound extreme, but based on what you both know about Korea, and you can answer this one by one if you like, how serious do you view Korea’s debt situation compared to elsewhere?
Craig Keary: Alex, if I’d maybe give this a go. I think the situation what I want to call the wealth divide in Korea is really troubling for Korea as a society, we know that the debt situation is extreme. And we know that that is only going to become more and more challenging. So that gives me a real cause for concern.
Toby Walsh: I agree. And we’ve seen inequality increase around the world. But certainly, from what I understand about Koreans, Korean economy, and Korean society, you can see that the problem is, is somewhat on steroids there because the structure of the society the way that the economy works. And we really do have to think as we come out of the pandemic, how do we change our institutions to ensure that all of us come out of this better?
Alex Jensen: Yeah, I mean, I can speak anecdotally. There are people searching here, there, and everywhere for loans, upon loans, there are those who are struggling to get anywhere near a mortgage, there are people who are struggling to replace cars. I mean, you look, in any direction, and there’s evidence of this here in Korea. So that’s the big problem. Then there are solutions. Toby, with your AI expertise, can you sum up for us the current state of artificial intelligence and how it can actually help people make better financial decisions and dig their way out of this kind of trouble?
Toby Walsh: Yeah, I mean, the point victor, understand is ultra-diligence is still work in progress we can we still have a long way to go to match human intelligence, which is, in some sense, the ultimate goal of artificial intelligence. But we if we pick a narrow task, whether that be you’re offering a particular type of financial advice We can start to build systems that can start to help. And I think at the moment, given the limitations, augment humans allow us to do things at scale and speed and accuracy that humans alone can’t match. So that goes from AI is not just one technology is also worth pointing out. It’s a bunch of different technologies, just like your intelligence is not just one thing, it’s a bunch of different things. And so that goes from simple things like the chatbot that you might be talking to when you engage with some financial service provider. There’s some AI that’s doing the understanding that’s perhaps able to triage your simple questions and work out when the questions are too complex, too difficult, and pass them on to a human to systems that can be used to try and offer you know, more detailed, more precise, particular financial advice. I mean, that’s, that’s the promise of AI just as AI delivers you personalized recommendations of movies that you might want on Netflix, and they can do that at scale. Hopefully, we can do the same with financial advice.
Alex Jensen: Well, Craig, for you actually offering digital advice professionally, I presume you’re going to be confident in the service. But what gives you that confidence? What’s the technology behind it?
Craig Keary: So first of all, Alex, one of the things is that we, if you think about financial advice, financial advice, is really around decision making. It’s also about calculations to actually help you inform those decisions. One of the things that we do, certainly at ignition, is we understand what the client’s current situation is. And then by running a series of calculations, we’re able to help that help that client understand and predict what are the actions that they need to undertake to help achieve their goals, whether that’s around insurance, whether that’s around their retirements, goals, or even just a simple goal around paying down debt or starting a savings plan. I’ve been in financial services for over 30 years. And one of the things that I’m really passionate about the role that institutions play in trying to help their customers and help society at large. And one of the things that if I think about the progress that’s been made, in the last five years, there’s technology has really put the power back to the institutions to really make what was a service that was very expensive, and to some extent, not accessible for the vast majority of the population, technology now has allowed that to be accessible to the majority of the population. And I think that is something that is actually very exciting. But also, from my perspective, something worth fighting for.
Alex Jensen: Just to be clear, it’s not just about AI, though, and that’s something perhaps that you’ll be embracing more and more in the future. But these are decisions that are based on massive collection of data experience and combined together makes for personalized advice. Can you just clarify that for us, though?
Craig Keary: That is correct, it’s based on a range of different data that we get from our clients, from our institutions that partner with us. And then we’re able to run that and predict, you know, how much based on that data, we’re able to run a series of calculations that will then ultimately predict, you know, how much that individual is going to need in retirement, and therefore, based on certain rates of return? What are they going to have to contribute towards that as an example? Or conversely, based on their current debt levels? What are the actions that they will need to take to help reduce that debt?
Alex Jensen: Toby? Does that sound like a wise strategy to you I presume you’re fairly positive on this as you are on the same panel as Craig today, but we also heard a fair bit about hybrid models and ways of ensuring that people are getting the full package basically of a service that they’re happy with while still engaging data and AI driven services.
Toby Walsh: Yeah, I’m all for more data evidence driven decisions. And that you know, there’s a spectrum here between you know, the cutting-edge art of intelligence down to the you know, the very simple data, some data science, recent simple predictions you can make that we’ve been doing now for decades. And that’s, you know, there’s a lot of what we do isn’t actually incredibly smart isn’t incredibly intelligent. But for example, if you can look at datasets and you can do that today, could look at data sets that are larger than humans have the patience to look at, then you can make perhaps more evidence-based decisions. And so, there’s a lot that can be done without necessarily having to have incredibly smart machines there. And I’m all for one, keeping humans in the loop because there’s a lot that humans have that machines don’t have certainly today then machines don’t have our you know, depth of understanding, they don’t have our emotional and social intelligence and can pick up the cues may be that the person’s giving them that actually do inform, you know, for example, their appetite for risk and the quirks of their particular situation financial or personal situation that mean that you might not have offered them the same advice as someone else, even if the numbers are looking the same.
Craig Keary: Look, just following on that point that that Toby made. At Ignition, one of the things that we’re really focused about is digital advice made human and the way that we’ve built our journeys, that the tools that we deploy to our customers, we built them very much from a customer centric design, sorry, customer centered design. But also, what we’ve done is we’ve made that possible, so that it’s not just if a customer’s going through one of our journeys at any point, they’re able to connect with the human or, or how, or have their decisions to triage by a human. And I think that’s particularly important in certain cultures and societies where people are used to talking to humans about their financial decisions. And if you have a situation where if it’s purely or digital, which that may be actually quite important in some societies, but in societies where human contact is still quite important, as part of this process, what we’ve done at ignition is made it possible for the human to still play a role in actually helping the customer through that journey.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, I mean, I guess if you’re seeking alone, and the machine says yes, with a decent rate, you’re going to be quite happy, but is where there are problems where you want to address questions where people might feel the need for that human contact, on building trust, coming back to this, this question, especially in Korea, where we have some of the highest net banking rates, but also quite large phishing scams online, for example, is that something that you’re going to have to address with institutions here?
Craig Keary: Absolutely. So, look, one of the things that we absolutely focus on is the security of our system, we invest heavily in the security of our system, adhering to all of the relevant ISO standards. But also, one of the things that we’re also really focused around is education. So actually, when you’re deploying and working with technology, with customers, educating the customers on the various steps that they need to undertake with respect to their own security as well, but also educating them on how to use the system, and guiding them through that system, sort of through those sorts of decisions that they will make by using the system. But data security is absolutely at the core of everything that we do as an institution.
Alex Jensen: Toby, another big theme overall for the webinar, was this issue of financial wellbeing and social responsibility, perhaps we can address that in more detail as well. And maybe you can start by describing the connection between technology and those factors.
Toby Walsh: That was as technology plays an increasing role in our lives, ever larger. Certainly, many people I, myself working in the field, realize that some of the disruptions it’s bringing into our lives are not necessarily positive, and that there is a real opportunity to, first of all, to ensure that it is but also to use the technology as a force for good. I mean, we see some really wicked problems in particular, the increasing inequality we see within our society, but equally other, you know, wicked problems, like the climate emergency that are that are causing, you know, financial or other stresses within our societies that that technology can help us in technologies like, can help us address but equally, if we just roll the technology out, without thinking carefully, then there’s a good chance that they will exasperate the, they will enlarge those problems as they will diminish those problems. So, it’s, there’s a real opportunity here, but we have very careful about how we use technology to insurance for good.
Alex Jensen: Well, this is an interesting philosophical question almost if we can go on a brief tangent here, Toby. I loved the whole subject of AI and where we’re heading and way, I just wonder, regarding keeping AI in check, there might be some people have the presumption that technology is as its heart cold and ruthless and highly capitalist. But it also depends, of course on who’s created that technology in the first place, which human has been behind it. And then the level of thinking capabilities and intelligence, in other words, that the machines would have to progress beyond that. If it’s not too complex, can you briefly address for us some of the misconceptions about that perhaps, and also where we’re heading most likely in terms of a balance between ruthless saying no to people who can’t afford financing, for example, and governments trying to win elections and making bold social welfare promises? And that then leaning on banks and other institutions?
Toby Walsh: Sure, I think this is a great time to be asking that question because I think if there is a silver lining to the pandemic, and there was huge amounts of hardship and, and pain caused by the pandemic, but you know, in some sense, the one silver lining of the pandemic was that it did allow us to consider how we structure our society and how we adapt to the pressures, whether they be technologies that are, like hospitalities, that are coming in and displacing some jobs, or challenges, like the climate emergency or challenges, or health challenges, like the pandemic itself, that we can structure our society in ways to deal with that. And I think we should remember this is not the first time that we’ve gone through big disruption driven either by health challenges or driven by technological change. And indeed, if we look back at the first Industrial Revolution, we look back at the invention of the steam engine and the electrification of our lives that brought a big disruption and changed our economies and changed the nature of work in a significant way that happened, and we came out of it better, we came out with much better quality of lives in many countries, including in Korea, our life expectancy has nearly doubled since the Industrial Revolution. And the median incomes have in real terms increased significantly, although they have now stored but for many years after the Industrial Revolution, we saw great periods of, of growth and, and increasing equity within our society. Those forces, though, have certainly changed of late. And we have to think about how that happened. And that happened, because we made some significant choices about sharing the wealth of the technologies we’re bringing around our society by having a strong labor movement that exists in Korea, as in many countries too, to have a strong welfare system that supports people when they’re maybe out of a job to have a healthcare system that provides, you know, somewhat universal health care that we’ve seen in many developed nations to have a system of universal pensions that supports people when they come to the end of their working life. So, the technologies can bring huge wealth. But then we make structural choices, societal choices, about how that wealth gets to be distributed. And I think that’s the best the real challenge we face today, which is that we have another technology coming along our intelligence that offers again, those sorts of benefits, but we have to make sure that those benefits are shared. And that it is not, it doesn’t end up like some Korean TV series.
Alex Jensen: Indeed, and Craig, when you’re a global corporation, even as a human not handing it over to AI, perhaps especially when you’re a human, it might be particularly difficult to make sound business decisions when you’re focusing very heavily on factors like social responsibility and financial wellbeing. Even though of course, I think the whole world has been persuaded that ESG factors are vitally important even from a very selfish perspective. But how do you get that balance right? Because you can’t please everybody.
Craig Keary: It’s a really great question, Alex. No, you can’t please everybody. But one of the things that we’re certainly seeing is it’s about having an opinion and having and being prepared to sort of stand by your opinion. And in our certainly in our organization, we feel deeply that making financial advice or guidance, more accessible to individuals, you something that will have benefits for those individuals. And then the more individuals that are able to access it, then that actually leads to a better society as a whole. And I think one of the things that I’m really humbled by working in financial services for a long while, at this, I just feel the last few years, while they’ve been incredibly challenging in terms of the pandemic and the associated disruption that that’s caused, I’m really humbled by the leadership that’s being shown across the globe in this space, it’s something that is a trend that I don’t see changing. And it’s a trend where I’m really seeing institutions that are going, yes, we’ve got to, we’ve got to make a profit, and we’ve got to deliver for our shareholders. But actually, we know that if we’ve got customers that are happy, a society that’s happy, then that actually leads to better outcomes as well.
Toby Walsh: Yeah, I want to second that I find myself somewhat surprised to be saying this, but because I have been criticism of the uncaring side of capitalism that we’ve seen in the last decade, but to say that, you know, our political institutions are in many places, letting us down. Unfortunately, not holding out too much hope for the cop26 climate talks. Politicians are not stepping up to the challenges that the immense challenges it seems. And maybe that’s a failure of the of the political systems that are electing them. But on the other hand, I’m much more optimistic by how business is stepping up and actually seeing businesses not just in the finance sector, but across the range of industries, taking the initiative in terms of addressing, you know, net zero targets, addressing inequalities within our society. And actually, that is increasingly identified as increate as a sound not just as a sound business decision that if you want to be in business in 10 or 20 years’ time, you’ve got to start addressing these issues. So, I’m actually very optimistic that capitalism is starting to deliver where politics is failing us.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, well, it’s funny, we started talking about Squid game, but that’s one thing the show’s done as well, it’s got a lot of people to baiting capitalism. And I like many things, it’s just depends where you look on the scale, I think we’re gonna have to let our audience pick up on that themselves, because we haven’t got that much long left. And I’d like to talk to both of you about where Korea stands globally, Australia’s interests in Korea as well, and particularly ignition devices, current interest in Korea. We heard during the course of the webinar, this fact again, that Korea is the most innovative country in the world, according to that Bloomberg index. I don’t know whether it’s entirely true in every area, and it’s impossible for one index to completely reflect the reality of the situation. But to both of you, which countries are doing it best right now in the area of Fintech? And is Korea really among them in your view?
Craig Keary: Alex, if I think about it, from my perspective, Korea, is an incredibly innovative country. And I think some of the innovations that have happened in a range of sectors and industries in Korea, you know, is really terrific. One of the things that we’ve seen, not just in Korea, but to be quite frank, with you all around the world is that financial services is generally quite slow to innovate. And that’s why you’ve actually seen Fintech’s, come on, emerge over the last sort of decade, has really been able to challenge the status quo, and really focus on solutions that are very much around the customer. One of the things that I’m certainly quite optimistic about is that and I still come back to the pandemic, the challenges that the pandemic as fate as, sorry, as thrown at us has meant that institutions will absolutely have to accelerate their delivery of innovative solutions and cost-effective solutions to their customers and one of the ways to do that, is to either do that yourself or partner with various other organizations such as ours. And from our perspective, I look at Korea, like, we look at a number of countries similar to Korea, around the world that you look at. If I look specifically at Korea, and I go, there’s a large number of institutions, there’s a population a significant population, but then I look at it and I go, there’s also a large amount of that population that needs assistance and help. And that the only way to provide that in a cost-effective way, is by using technology.
Alex Jensen: Sometimes, though, Craig, there is this resistance here in Korea, and they prefer to look at what foreign technology is out there and then domesticated it. Are you concerned about that?
Craig Keary: Look, look, I think at the moment, it’s the moment where we’re very open to talking with institutions, what we can do is bring our expertise from a number of different markets, and actually explain how that’s worked in those different markets. And then ultimately, one of the things that we like to do, and a very strong philosophy of our organization is around what we call core partnership. And we feel rather than just being a vendor or a supplier, but being a partner, that to some extent, Alex, takes away that risk.
Alex Jensen: Yeah, well, it certainly makes sense. And especially in this increasingly global world, it shouldn’t perhaps be such a problem in the first place. And Toby, looking at it, maybe even from a wider lens, I’d like to just give you free rein with this Korea state of innovation from the outside, in your view.
Toby Walsh: I always love visiting Korea, because I actually feel when I’m there, but I’m about five minutes into the future. It’s a nation where certainly there seems to be a lot of digital literacy, and a lot of enthusiasm to embrace technologies. Although no like any Eastern society, there is also this wonderful culture and tradition and respect for the past. But you know, that’s I think that’s the Blade Runner, exhaustive view of the future, which is that it’s this lovely mixture of a very old and very new and Korea always seems to me that that mix of the of the old and the new that it is an exciting place. And so, I always accepted invitations to go to Korea, because it always helps inform me as to what my future might be.
Alex Jensen: Well, here I am and five minutes ahead of you, it’s still not a completely robotic society, I can tell you that much. You’ll find out in five minutes, I guess. I’d like to just finish by asking you both if there are any particular messages from the webinar that you would like to re-emphasize, particularly for the benefit of anyone listening, who didn’t have a chance to attend?
Craig Keary: Look, Alex, from my perspective, we’re deeply passionate about working in Korea, we feel that the need for financial advice and guidance has never been as great and given the challenges that are around as a result of the pandemic. This is something that all of us have got to sort of come together and try and solve. And Korea at listen to what we’ve been talking about with financial stress in Korea, it absolutely has to be solved.
Alex Jensen: And Toby?
Toby Walsh: As I said that the silver lining of the pandemic is that it’s given us this huge great shock. And where the world has had these similar shocks in the past, there have been moments for great transformation. So, in that sense, I’m optimistic and we are going to go through an interesting period of change which is hopefully for the better and promote equitable, fair adjust society and technologies like AI can help us do that.
Alex Jensen: Craig Keary, Asia Pacific CEO of Ignition Advice and Professor Toby Walsh of UNSW a specialist in AI, thank you both for being with us for this different format. I’ve enjoyed it actually, hope we can connect with a few more webinars. In fact, maybe involving both of you again in the future. It’s been a pleasure.
Craig Keary: Thank you, Alex.
Alex Jensen: And that brings to close today’s episode with a slight difference here on Koreabizcast with the KBLA. Thank you everybody for your company. If you want to connect with us, we welcome any feedback or comments that you might have about any webinars perhaps that you’re organizing in the future as well. Just email email@example.com and see you again tomorrow from 7am Korea time.