When We Have ‘Chatbots’ Will We Still Need Financial Education?

By Dan Kadlec

January 10, 2017

IBM's Watson

The absence of financial education in schools around the globe has created a knowledge void that technology entrepreneurs hope to fill with artificial intelligence. Is this a good thing?

Last year, Bank of America and MasterCard revealed new tools known as “chatbots,” which will allow customers to ask for information about their accounts and do things like transfer funds and pay bills. The tools will even deliver financial advice by text or via Amazon’s Echo tower.

For now, this amounts to little more than voice banking at home. But the near-term goal is to build these into tools that can make monthly payments on time and in different amounts, and will keep track of your spending and alert you when you have busted the monthly budget for, say, dining out or Uber rides. All without prompting.

Hoping to jumpstart the movement, and move quickly into something approximating artificial intelligence, personal finance app Clarity Money launched in October with the promise of doing everything for individuals from identifying savings opportunities to negotiating lower fees.

Heavy hitters including Michael Dell’s brother, Adam, and George Soros are backing the technology. “People feel overwhelmed and they don’t have the tools to navigate financial relationships,” Adam Dell told Business Insider. Dell wants Clarity Money to be an automatic advocate for consumers.

His app uses data science and machine learning to, say, create a savings account and siphon money that direction, find a lower interest rate credit card and use spending patterns and credit scores to recommend various actions. The app can even discover recurring monthly fees for unused services and cancel them.

This technology is far from perfect. It cannot actually think for you. And there is always the risk that it may cancel the wrong subscription or save a few pennies that you don’t mind spending for a certain brand or experience. But it is coming–and it will only get better at auto managing your budget without breaking a sweat.

So, is this a good thing? As I wrote for Time.com last April and updated for Right About Money in October: “Technology is changing personal finance–and the way we teach it–in profound ways. It’s not all good. But if we can master the gadgets in our hands the payoff will be enormous.”

Automated consumer advocacy around financial matters could help individuals immeasurably as they struggle to balance bills, budgets, savings and investments. Automatic is where we are headed. Auto enrollment and auto escalation of contributions has made a huge difference in 401(k) plan participation. Chatbots that automate other parts of our financial life are a logical next step.

But none of this replaces individual financial literacy—the ability to understand where your money is going and how it is working for you. Technology can get you started and even guide you. But it cannot fine tune your plans or make decisions based on suddenly changing circumstances.

And you will always be more confident if you understand what the chatbots are doing and why they are doing it. One day it may help to turn over your financial life to artificial intelligence. But it will help even more if you understand the decisions that computers are making on your behalf.

Posted in Gadgets & Apps on January, 2017