Thursday, December 13, 2018
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My hands grip the wheel now, but financial autopilot is coming

My hands grip the wheel now, but financial autopilot is coming

NYT Syndicate

I love tech but it scares me. Every year it seems to be taking over another part of my life.
Soon it may be controlling my finances. It's already taking over my driving.
I'm trying to maintain control. Ever since"2001: A Space Odyssey," I've been worried. That HAL 9000 gave me a serious case of techno-heebie-jeebies."I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that," it told a desperate astronaut who was essentially asking it to preserve his life. Frankenstein, the golem stories ” they all resonate with me.
No wonder I'm not ready to trust an algorithm with so much of my life ” or even with my life.
Still, sooner or later, I end up giving in and using whatever technology is offered because of ” convenience! I tell myself,"Don't be such a big baby!"
Mapping software is something I'm willing to use. The problem, though, as with pretty much all tech, is that it is just good enough to lull me into relying on it, but not always trustworthy enough to make that a wise choice. When I was trying to take my older son to the Motor Vehicle Commission office in Wayne, New Jersey, one Saturday morning a couple of years ago, Apple Maps sent me to a spot on a small residential road. You have arrived!
Angry and confused, I drove up a bit to make a safe U-turn, and on my way back to civilisation, as I passed the spot where I had stopped, I saw another car, the driver clearly wondering why the phone had just told him he had arrived at his destination. How many people each day was the app sending to that spot? Were Apple engineers sitting back in Cupertino, watching us all on some sort of GPS-equipped monitor, sniggering at our consternation? Did they think"2001" was a comedy? I suspect so.
I have switched to Google Maps, which has been better, though not perfect. And I review my route before I drive. But ever since Google bought Waze, a live traffic data app, in 2013, Google Maps has become increasingly aggressive about telling me that there is an alternate route that will be even faster than the one I'm on.
So I am accommodating myself to the world of software that guides me though my road trips. But what about software for my finances? I'm still resisting it, yet software for money is everywhere.
Many programs are aimed at those app-happy millennials.
Some programs, like Mint, Level Money and YNAB (You Need a Budget) encourage savings and budgeting. Others help manage investments, and some offer advice. Acorns sneakily helps you invest by rounding purchases up to the nearest dollar and investing the pennies. Services like Betterment, WiseBanyan and Wealthfront help manage and plan your portfolio and investments.
But there are complaints. Wealthfront angered customers when it suspended trading after the British vote to leave the European Union. The company said it took the action to protect investors, but many investors were furious. Not trading during the"Brexit" smashup was probably a good idea; not being allowed to trade at all is probably a bad idea.
That's where my hands grip the wheel tightly again. I can fix a bad detour while I'm driving by wandering around for a while and, as the apps tell us,"return to the route." But being steered wrong with my retirement funds is a lot harder to recover from. One bad move and I'll be eating Hamburger Helper until I die.
What scares me is the realisation that computers are already making big incursions into my financial life.
My software-generated 401(k) statements remind me that it's time to rebalance my portfolio to include more bonds, though it's not telling me which ones to get. Yet. I assume that will be coming before long, and, eventually, I will be listening.
Of course, human brokers do plenty of terrible things. And when a human helped me at Vanguard, he was probably just telling me what his computer told him about my investments.
At some point, I expect, software will be telling me what to invest in. As will happen in so many other industries, the human advisers will have been laid off, and the artificial intelligence bot will be my only option. I'll talk to it, because by then I will have been laid off, too, replaced by a joke-writing computer, the Rickles 9000. I will be so lonely.
After that, the machines will be trying to sell me Florida time shares and explaining to me why I really need to be buying gold bullion. They'll want me to buy it with bitcoin. They will send me on a random walk down Wall Street, but with crazy detours to catch Pok`mon.
Or, just maybe, the software will do right by me. In any case, I expect that someday I will go on autopilot, trusting a machine to manage my money completely. It couldn't do much worse than I have.
So long as it doesn't leave me in Wayne, New Jersey.


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