Mon Oct 21 2019 Michael McQueen

Imagine a world where you enter a retail store and are instantly identified by your mobile phone. Your preferences, credit card details and buying history are immediately recognized along with your identity and from that moment on, the entire in-store experience is customized to your needs and desires. You select products either by scanning a code on your smartphone or by placing items in a physical shopping cart the old-school way. When you are finished shopping, your shopping tally is calculated as you walk past sensors near the exit and the amount owing is immediately charged to your default credit card.

Sound fanciful or futuristic? Well this is almost precisely the automated retail experience shoppers are already enjoying in Amazon’s recently opened bricks-and-mortar retail stores.

Amazon are not the only ones transforming physical retailing. Square have developed and released technology that will identify you upon entry to a store. Their Pay By Name system detects when a known mobile phone is in range, identifies the buyer, and displays his or her face on a screen so that the person behind the register can simply tap the picture to complete the transaction. [1]

Before long, we won’t even need our smartphones to act as the middle-man in this process; bio-metric technology will kick-start the automation process by recognizing our voices, fingerprints or retinas as we walk into a store. Chinese payment giant Alipay even unveiled technology called “Smile to Pay” in September 2017 which allows customers to verify their identity and ‘pay’ for a meal via facial recognition.[2]

Similarly, the service sector is waving goodbye to the human faces that once defined it at the hands of automation.

Take the financial planning and advice business for instance. With the series of recent scandals in recent years and the rise of automation technology, many clients have been left questioning the real value of human advisors.

The real expert financial strategists with extraordinary people skills will stay safe in their positions for a while yet, but for those playing a more minor role, the ‘robo-advisers’ are coming! These automated investment advice algorithms incorporate a client’s goals and risk profile in order to make intelligent wealth management recommendations at a fraction of the cost of a traditional adviser or funds manager. [3]

Carolyn Colley, chief executive of software firm Decimal, says the range of automated advice platforms is likely to grow significantly in the coming years and that by mid-2017 they were already managing $19 billion of investment in the United States. [4]

In the related field of accounting, similar moves towards automation have been underway for some time now. Automated bank feeds and cloud-based accounting software has all-but removed the need for bookkeepers - and accountants themselves could be next in the firing line.

For instance, KPMG recently announced a goal of having 30% of client audits completed by robots within a few short years. That’s the bread and butter work of a lot of accountants instantly disappearing.

Automation is seeing the personal services sector undergoing transformation of similar significance. In recent years, automation developments have seen robots acting as:

  • Waiters: Robotics giant Motoman has developed automated waiters that are currently serving tables in restaurants around China, Japan and South Korea.[5]
  • Secretaries: A robotic secretary is already a reality at the Jones Lang LaSalle headquarters in downtown Sydney. ‘JiLL’ as she is known, is a 57cm tall humanoid whose job description is to handle a range of front-of-house tasks including check-in for meetings, providing directions, contacting hosts and reporting building maintenance issues. JiLL also has in-built facial recognition software to enable her to respond differently to team members as opposed to external visitors. [6]
  • Aged-care workers: The Japanese are also at the forefront of automating the aged-care sector. This is partly due to the demographic realities facing Japan – an ageing population and a severe worker shortage. In response, Japanese auto giant Toyota has built a nursing aide named ‘Robina’. Weighing 60kg and standing at 1.2m tall, Robina communicates in a broadly human manner using words and gestures and has a brother named ‘Humanoid’ who is a general home assistant for the elderly performing tasks such as washing dishes. [7]

All hope is not yet lost for service workers. Despite advancements in the automation of personal and professional services, I do believe there are some things that only humans will be able to do for a long while yet. For instance, you may be able to automate care-giving but you can’t automate caring. The virtues of compassion and empathy are uniquely human.

Financial advisers, accountants, and other service workers who have their wits about them will recognize automation technology for the opportunity that it is and adjust their value proposition accordingly. As one of the more visionary accountants I have worked with once said: “Accountants need to shift from seeing themselves as the score keeper at the end of the game (or financial year) to being the coach on the sidelines offering support throughout the game.”

This metaphor applies to the many other service jobs alike. Automation will free up many service workers to become the trusted and valuable human faces who assist, advise and coach, rather than simply conduct transactions. However, workers who fail to recognize and adjust to this paradigm shift likely see themselves out of a job more quickly than they realize.


Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.

He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 8 books. To order Michael's latest book "The Case for Character", click here.

To see Michael speaking live, click here and for more information on Michael's speaking topics,


[1]  2015, ‘2020 Technology Landscape’, Citrix Technology Office, April

[2] Lee, A. 2017, ‘Alipay Rolls Out World’s First ‘Smile To Pay’ Facial Recognition System At KFC Outlet In Hangzhou’, South China Morning Post, 1 September

[3] Schwab, K. 2016, The Fourth Industrial Revolution, Penguin, London, p. 63

[4] Yeates, C. 2015, ‘Rise Of The Robots Highlights Grey Areas In Financial Service Advice Rules’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September

[5] Ross, A. 2016, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, New York, p. 40

[6] Cummins, C. 2016, ‘Robots Are The New Frontline Receptionists’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 October

[7] Ross, A. 2016, Industries of the Future, Simon & Schuster, New York, pp. 15-17