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Perspective is needed on technological change

Steve Goodall, CEO of ULS Technology Plc discusses the need for perspective on technological change

In 2016, Professor Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, published a book called The Fourth Industrial Revolution. While previous industrial revolutions replaced animal labour with machinery, developed mass production and made personal computing accessible to billions around the world, Schwab argues the latest round of technological development is different. Digital networks, artificial intelligence, machine learning, wearable technology, mobile and the cloud have combined to create an environment in which technological evolution is becoming cognitive and social in nature.

In the three years that have passed since the book was published, driverless cars, surgeonless operations and Amazon’s Alexa have reached market. It’s therefore understandable that fear of machines replacing humans across all employment sectors, is growing.

It’s important, however, that we put this rapid technological advancement into perspective. Employment in the UK is at its lowest level since 1974, suggesting that we’re still rather far off this fear being realised. Rather than losing human roles to machines, we are actually seeing a new, better way of working with technology that holds enormous benefits for all of us.

At the start of this year, the World Bank produced their 2019 World Development Report titled The Changing Nature of Work. In it, the Bank’s president Jim Yong Kim, wrote: ‘We know that robots are taking over thousands of routine tasks and will eliminate many low-skill jobs in advanced economies and developing countries. At the same time, technology is creating opportunities, paving the way for new and altered jobs, increasing productivity, and improving the delivery of public services.’

This view is balanced, and realistic. Some jobs and processes lend themselves to automation; others, don’t. At least, not yet. The type of technology that we’re talking about is also important – automating certain processes in financial services doesn’t require complex algorithms, machine learning or AI, but a more modest shift from analogue to digital. The more complex tasks are still largely being done by people as there is a need to exercise judgement which cannot be delivered otherwise.

This is also the view from the Financial Conduct Authority. Speaking at The Alan Turing Institute’s ‘AI Ethics in the Financial Sector’ conference in July, Christopher Woolard, Executive Director of Strategy and Competition at the FCA, unveiled the results of a joint survey with the Bank of England to assess the current use of artificial intelligence in financial services firms.

‘Are we really living through a crisis of algorithmic control?’ asked Woolard. ‘The answer, at least when it comes to the use of AI in financial services, is – not yet. What we found was that the use of AI in the firms we regulate is best described as nascent. The technology is employed largely for back office functions, with customer-facing technology largely in the exploration stage.

‘By and large those who lead financial services firms seem to be cognisant of the need to act responsibly, and from an informed position. Rightly, the lessons of the crisis seem to be playing on industry minds. Too much faith was put in products and instruments that weren’t properly understood. Certainly, there is no desire to reverse progress on rebuilding public trust.’

This echoes our own views and experience of the move towards automation in the mortgage process and, more specifically, the role of conveyancers within it. There’s more than one step in the conveyance of property from one party to another, and automation and digitisation serves some better than others.

Know Your Client checks, ID verification and Anti-Money Laundering checks are undertaken in various ways, at the moment. Many solicitors still rely on paper processes but there are an increasing number of options to digitise this part of the process. There are at least two firms working within the FCA’s innovation sandbox to improve digital identity verification: the Post Office is looking to develop the availability of the gov.uk verify service while Diro Labs offers a digital KYC due diligence service. The advantages of digitalising this element of the process are reportability, auditability and compliance.

HM Land Registry also has plans for a centralised, digital Local Land Charges Register, intended to make local authority searches available online immediately, which should speed up a lot of paperwork. This is a good example of where conveyancers’ expertise and experience will remain critical, but will increasingly be supported by technology to increase efficiency, allowing them to spend more time on further enquiries and queries rather than the initial search request.

The legal process is, we believe, the most ripe for digital innovation, which is why we built DigitalMove. Conveyancers and customers can upload and store documentation relating to their property transaction securely, as well as communicate through one platform. It not only provides a record of compliance, but also promotes much swifter processing and gives clients the transparency they’ve been seeking for years.

With all of these moves, the conveyancing process is set to become a much faster, slicker and consistent experience for customers. There remains a vital role for the conveyancer in all of this for many years yet.

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