Serious Money - Alexa - what's my bank balance? FT Money
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Many schools and nurseries are on half term this week, so I’ve been helping my brother and sister-in-law look after my twin nephews, who are nearly four years old.

Cooped up indoors as storm clouds gathered, story time with Auntie Claer took on a digital twist when one of them yelled: “Alexa — turn the lights on!”

Around one in five UK households now has a smart speaker. My brother has the Amazon Echo Dot, but I have so far resisted. For all of the promises about data privacy, I don’t like the idea of devices listening in. Plus, I am the kind of person who prefers kitchen devices to electrical gadgets (my latest acquisition is a tool that helps me cut the most amazing hasselback potatoes).

Yet having finally found the book the twins wanted and got their baby sister settled on my lap, I’ll admit it was convenient not to have to get up to turn the lights on the old-fashioned way.

“If only Alexa could make me a cup of tea,” I said in jest. But the twins had another trick: “Alexa, I love you,” they chorused.

Alexa responded through the medium of song: “Thanks for saying I love you, you’re just as sweet as pie. I’ll always be here to help you, I’m your trusty AI.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I soon got the chance to hear it again, and again, until I managed to distract them with the delights of Puffin Peter. But it got me thinking.

The ease with which the younger generation has adapted to smart devices is going to have massive implications for how we manage our money in the future. As the number of digital transactions goes up, the applications for artificial intelligence and machine learning can only increase. But as we lose the connection with “actual” money, will this make it harder for young people to understand its true worth?

The twins each have a money box, but it feels anachronistic giving them coins to save when they rarely see any form of transaction that involves cash. Even their toy cash register has a contactless card attachment.

Seeing as they are already so comfortable with a digital interface, could they keep on track of their finances in future by saying: “Alexa, what’s my bank balance?”

I’ve checked in with the human beings who handle Alexa’s press inquiries in Europe and they confirm that they don’t currently have any personal banking “skills” available — but I sense it won’t be long.

Similar to an app, a “skill” is an experience that a third-party developer has created that can be enabled on your smart speaker. This is how you can use Alexa to order an Uber, a Domino’s pizza or items from Amazon itself (and, yes, you can set up parental controls to prevent your children from ordering truck loads of sweets and chocolate).

So it’s easy to spend money, but other “skills” are skewed towards saving it.

The Aviva Pension skill enables Alexa to tell you what the balance of your pension is, and what your regular contributions are (providing you have set up a voice enabled Pin number). Although gimmicky, it’s an excellent engagement tool. It won’t work for all Aviva pensions, and user reviews are eager for it to be extended to other insurance products. As one points out, it would be very useful if you could ask: “Alexa, when is my motor renewal date?” or “does my policy cover bicycle theft?”

The Smart Pension skill, set up by the auto-enrolment pensions platform of the same name, goes further. After setting up security, its users can ask Alexa to increase their monthly contributions.

There are several skills that can tell you the share prices of listed companies, and the Bond Checker skill can check your Premium Bonds with NS&I.

The British reluctance to talk about money could yet be a problem for smart speakers. Digital challenger bank Starling tells me it has had some “very interesting chats with Alexa” about launching a skill that could tell customers their account balance or monitor their spending (“Alexa — how much did I spend in the pub last night?”)

Starling says: “In the end, we decided for reasons of security (and domestic bliss) that she was a little too indiscreet to be allowed to broadcast people’s financials to anyone in earshot.”

Nevertheless, NatWest Bank is coming to the end of a three-month trial with rival Google Assistant where 500 customers have been using voice controls to check their balance, listen to recent transactions and remind themselves which transactions are pending.

They have had to set up voice recognition controls with NatWest online banking to do so, and given the sensitivities over banking fraud, it could be some time before anyone can ask: “OK Google, can I transfer some money?”

Even so, I am broadly in favour of using technology to make it easier for people to engage with their finances on a day-to-day basis.

Separate research from NatWest this week made for alarming reading. Based on an anonymised analysis of 750,000 UK customer accounts, the bank found that only half of adults regularly put money aside when they are paid each month and a quarter spend more than they earn.

The level of income did not alter the pattern of spending every last penny — the bank found that those earning £90,000 a year were just as likely to do so as those earning £9,000.

Money is increasingly invisible in our modern world, but when it comes to money management skills, we need to smarten up.

Claer Barrett is the editor of FT Money, and presents a daily financial news bulletin on Eddie Mair’s LBC drive-time show at 5.30pm: claer.barrett@ft.com; Twitter @Claerb; Instagram @Claerb

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