Tuesday 26 January 2021 12:55 pm

‘Robots will take our jobs’: Eigen boss Lewis Liu on the future of the City worker

It’s very rare a chief executive will say their work will lead to mass job cuts, not least one of an artificial intelligence firm. 

But Eigen Technologies’ Lewis Liu is not like your everyday boss. He is surprisingly frank in an industry that does an impressive job of spinning mass job cuts. 

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it… machine learning will displace human labour. It’s controversial from a social perspective but from the perspective of economic markets it’s indisputable,” Liu tells City A.M. 

The Eigen chief already has an impressive career at just 34. He graduated from Harvard with a double major in fine art and physics before studying for a PhD in physics at Oxford University. 

There he invented a new class of X-Ray lasers while simultaneously advising magic circle firm Linklaters. Soon after he came up with the idea for Eigen, which works to automate the extraction of data from documents in financial services.  

The focus on financial services came after a brief stint as a graduate consultant at McKinsey between his Oxford and Harvard degrees. 

“It really struck me just how poor the quality of data is in financial services. It left a deep impression because as a 22 year old I thought: ‘surely everyone has their shit together, this should be pretty straightforward.’” 

After securing Linklaters as its first R&D partner and a series of huge funding rounds, including a Series B with the Singapore Government holding company Temasek alongside Dawn Capital and Lakestar, it’s clear Eigen is making a name for itself. 

Eigen works with a third of the world’s biggest financial institutions including asset management giant Blackrock, and Goldman and ING which later invested in its $42m Series B round last March.

So is Eigen’s answer to the financial services actually leading to job cuts in the industry?

“For many of our banking clients we have displaced tens or hundreds of people with technology.” 

But it’s not as simple as that. “The banks we’ve worked for certainly haven’t let those people go, we’ve been able to allocate them to other tasks and to do sort of more higher value added work.” 

He is mostly referring to the mundane administrative tasks that graduates are often lumped with, reminiscent of his time at McKinsey.  

“You don’t go to Cambridge law… just to spend the first five years graduating from law school answering the same question from the same documents over and over again. It’s an immense waste of human talent.” 

But Liu thinks that while those working in financial services are aware of the benefits of AI in work there may be some politics at play. 

“When people think about reallocating resources they may think ‘I used to have 200 people reporting to me and now I’m going to have eight because of this AI system. I don’t want that.’ So while it may be better for the business it may not be good for them as a manager.” 

He concedes there are legitimate concerns around some data bias in machine learning but ultimately the appetite for AI in the industry is healthy. 

‘Whoever has the data wins the game’

Eigen Technologies doubled its customers through the pandemic and tripled the number of its large enterprise customers, and it’s clear why.

Aside from the pandemic, UK banks are facing stiff competition from their American peers, who are better capitalised and more profitable, and the more nimble fintechs. 

“We tell European banks ‘American banks are much more efficient, we can help you review documents better, digitise your documents and know your position so your balance sheet is much more liquid.’” 

But with banks sitting on a treasure trove of banking information Liu thinks they should also be using this to get one up on tech giants like Amazon. 

“Whoever has the data wins the game. Google does not have historical wholesale banking transactions that banks do to make the best-in-class credit decisions, but they need to get access to that data out of their unstructured data.” 

If this is the pitch Liu and his team are giving potential customers it’s a bright future for Eigen. 

Liu dismisses the possibility of a public listing just yet – “Don’t ask me that question!” – but Liu is ambitious in the medium term. 

“I’d like to think we’re the default winning player in the space for financial services, but we’re only just getting started. We work with one third of the G-SIBS but there’s two thirds to go.”