Special Report:

Rise of the robo-advisers

Voice apps and robots to revolutionise investments

For Siri, the voice-activated virtual assistant on Apple iPhones, it is Scottish accents. For Google’s driverless cars, it is European roundabouts*. And for Dr Who’s robotic nemeses, the Daleks, it is short flights of stairs. Every technology, it seems, has its Achilles heel. Or, in the case of the Daleks, at least two too few. This has certainly been the view of ap(p)oplectic Scots with smartphones (search YouTube for “Apple Scotland ad”), delegates at this year’s TechTrends conference and British TV audiences of the 1970s.

So when I received emails about an “innovative platform that turns words into investment strategies” and “robo-advisers [that] will revolutionise the wealth management industry”, I could not help but think: what will trip them up? How can speech recognition and automated advice cater for wealthy individuals with complex finances? Let alone wealthy Glaswegians. Who have relocated to Milton Keynes**. And taken penthouse flats*** in buildings with faulty lifts****. I therefore invited the innovators to demonstrate their technology. In English. At the FT building, via the Waterloo roundabout. On the second floor.

Shahar Rabin, co-founder of Capitalise, the platform that “bridges the gap between simple words and complex investment strategy”, rose to the challenge. He showed me how phrases typed into a Google-like text field could be recognised by his software and translated into an executable trading order on a broker’s website. “Buy 500 Starbucks shares if the price breaks $60 and the price of coffee futures decreases 1 per cent,” he told it. And it instantly set up the conditional trade. This, I learned, was because “Capitalise understands both everyday speech and complex trading language”.

What if the speech is not so everyday, though? Like with the Scottish problem? After all, The Sun newspaper reported that when exasperated McUsers screamed “You’re a b**bag!” into their iPhones, Siri interpreted it as “Eurobond bank”. Not a good investment. Rabin assured me that in the event of misunderstandings, the Capitalise interface simply turns red. Much like several Scots I know.

Paolo Galvani, co-founder of MoneyFarm, the latest robo-adviser, or digital wealth management company, was equally poised. His company, like others in this area, allows clients to fill in an online risk profile. Algorithms then calculate their optimal fund portfolio. As he put it: “Most large private bankers are managing wealthy clients’ assets in this way.” So why not have an automated service do it at half the cost? MoneyFarm charges 0.7 per cent inclusive of dealing fees and has so far attracted 50,000 users. In the US, automated wealth management services go further: they not only run ETF portfolios but also reinvest dividends and optimise tax efficiency. Betterment, which charges 0.15-0.35 per cent, now manages $3bn for more than 100,000 customers. Some fear the terrain may prove too hard to navigate. “Robo-advice . . . can work well when global markets are playing by the rules,” notes Iain Tait, head of the private investment office at London & Capital, the wealth manager. “However, normal rules just don’t apply any more. In this environment you need dynamic asset allocation and, crucially, human interaction.”

Yogi Dewan, chief executive of Hassium Asset Management, seems similarly robophobic. “Robo-investing has no place in wealth,” he warns me. “It is essentially programme trading and something hedge funds have been doing for decades with limited success. Would you entrust your health to a robot? So why entrust your financial wellbeing?”

And Duncan Macintyre, chief executive of Lombard Odier UK, the asset manager, feels there is something that coding cannot quantify. “Robo-advice will struggle to understand the emotional consequences of someone’s wealth,” he argues. “Without that solid base of human appreciation, any planning will be flawed.”

But there is hope. I have discovered that Susan Bennett, the voice of Apple’s Siri, is following me on Twitter. Perhaps she is finally working on an answer to the Scottish question.

Translation for Silicon Valley:

* Circular highway intersections
** British town arranged on grid of circular highway intersections
*** apartments
**** elevators

Matthew Vincent is the FT’s deputy companies editor

Letter in response to this editorial:

Digital investment is good for wealth management / From Adam French

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