When it comes to man versus machine in wealth management, a growing army of robo-advisors is touting artificial intelligence as the industry’s next big game changer.
And according to at least two new entrants in the field, tomorrow might already be here.
On Thursday, pioneering robo Wealthfront launched what it’s calling a major revamp of an online investment service that began in late 2011. The idea, says the Redwood City, Calif.-based firm, is to make an online portal that’s smarter and more intuitive to each individual client’s needs.
“This next generation of Wealthfront really advances the capabilities of investors to get a more complete and accurate view of their financial lives,” says Adam Nash, chief executive of the robo, which most recently reported more than $3 billion in assets under management.
Earlier this week, Fidelity began testing its own Fidelity Go online service in preparation for a second-half 2016 companywide launch. Last month, Ladenburg Thalmann Financial Services brought to market what it calls a “self-service investment platform.”
Artificial intelligence upgrades to existing software systems like the ones being put into place now by Wealthfront represent the latest way for established robos to help separate themselves from the pack, says Sean McDermott, an analyst with Corporate Insight in New York.
At this stage he views such tech enhancements as “great first steps” – but ones that only “scrape a very small tip of the iceberg” in terms of harvesting AI’s full potential.
“What we’re just now starting to see is a transition from talking about more intelligent software,” says McDermott, “to actually seeing it filter out into the digital advice marketplace.”
At the heart of Wealthfront’s revamp is an injection of software planning devices built around so-called cognitive computing techniques. The highly specialized algorithms are used to track different behavioral traits by investors, notes Nash.
“Artificial intelligence and greater flexibility in how computers exchange information with each other are going to lead to higher quality advice as well as improved financial behavior by clients,” he says.
At the same time, New York-based developer Marstone is working with a handful of institutional clients on getting roadmaps and other technical data to implement its artificially intelligent system.
Deployment for advisors and broker-dealers signed up with custodian Pershing’s service platform is expected to begin later this month. Marstone’s artificial intelligence engine is driven through a partnership with IBM to use its super computer Watson, perhaps best known for beating two past Jeopardy game-show winners.
“A key component that IBM Watson brings to the table is an ability to educate advisors and their clients on everything from suitability of investment choices to properly identifying and putting into perspective major life events,” says Margaret Hartigan, Marstone’s chief executive and a former Merrill Lynch advisor.
Right now she’s finding “most companies are approaching us about getting into digital advice as a first step, then looking to expand into more cognitive learning types of applications as their digital strategies evolve.”
Wealthfront is also taking a step-by-step approach. It’s starting with developing a host of new application program interfaces, or APIs, to set up direct connections with a range of online financial services. How quickly those are added will be driven largely by feedback from clients, says Nash.
Currently, he lists third-party apps incorporated into Wealthfront’s next-generation platform as including: mobile payment provider Venmo; real estate market research by Redfin; peer-to-peer credit data from Lending Club; and Coinbase’s bitcoin wallet.
“Instead of collecting data quarterly or yearly, by developing more APIs we’re going to be able to create a constant flow of data,” says Nash.
Building a more artificially intelligent system isn’t likely to take the place of traditional advisors working with complicated estate and investment plans, he adds.
But for most investors – indeed, more than 60% of Wealthfront’s clients are age 35 or younger – artificial intelligence is aimed at “giving the right advice at the right time,” notes Nash.
“It’s not just about providing a more customized user experience,” he says. “It’s also about giving our clients closer access to other online resources and making investment advice more relevant to their real-world experiences.”