Am I safe from robots?

Over the summer I have been troubled by robots. Will I be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI)?

Surely not? Surely my years of experience and practice are invaluable and difficult to replicate? As a human philanthropy practitioner, I am able to identify trends and assess all the many factors involved in deciding how good a proposal or prospect is and what degree of social change it will achieve. I can’t imagine a machine being able to understand the importance of culture, ethos and passion. I like to think my reading of accounts and plans and conversations with workers, service users, Trustees and Chief Executives lead me to robust, deep and nuanced judgments.

But then I read another account of the power of algorithms and the power of AI and it reminds me that machines fed with big data will be much quicker than me in spotting trends and correctly attributing benefits. In the financial services industry, algorithms are already making their presence felt. For example, HSBC has an online investment service using alogrithms and robo-advisors are expected to be responsible for assets worth $285 billion in 2017 (see links below).

And perhaps robots will not just be quicker at analysing data but will also be better than me. The things I rate as important such as questioning and listening skills, building rapport, and sector knowledge may lead to me making wrong assumptions and biased decisions. However objective I like to think I am, a robot is less easily swayed by a good story, charisma or being wrongly attached to a familiar intervention.

So perhaps it is only a matter of time before I too am replaced by a robot. And that may well be where my hope lies – time. How long is it going to take for someone to invest in the technology needed? Someone will have to create the algorithms and gain access to the relevant data. Someone will also have to make decisions about what impact measures to use. It is one thing to invest in robots where there is a profit to be made but who is going to invest in philanthropic robo-advisors?

The charitable sector has been slow to adopt digital. Perhaps this delay will mean that it becomes the last bastion of the value of human relationships when all around are working with robots. I might find a home there for my skills in connecting humans trying to achieve social good. But I am no luddite, and I feel uncomfortable with this conclusion. Philanthropy should grasp the opportunity that robots will bring to better understand who and what to invest in to achieve the maximum good. My hope is that I will continue to bring the human judgment and compassion, whilst my robot assistant does all the number crunching and data checks.