Nic Cicutti: The ‘future of advice’ is miles off

Nic Cicutti

A few months ago, just as I was about to file my column for Money Marketing, my computer blew up. A quick call to an expert and I was up and running within a couple of days. Thankfully, I have an automatic back-up facility which saved my old files.

On the advice of my tech wizard, what I also decided to invest in, aside from a massive hard drive and a few other software toys, was a package allowing a user to lock or unlock their  computer using face recognition.

When you leave your screen, it automatically locks your session. When you come back, it recognises you and unlocks it again. If a non-authorised person tries to log into your screen, the system takes a picture of this person and stores it on the computer.

To be honest, although it seemed like a neat idea initially, I am not at all sure why I bothered with it. This is more of a package for mobile phones or publicly-shared work computers. I have since disabled this particular piece of kit and chalked the few quid I spent as one more example of wasted tech money.

Still, I was reminded of my futile expenditure when reading Money Marketing’s investigation into software that can identify my emotions by “reading” my facial muscles. According to MM, Swiss-based technology firm nViso recently launched its Emotion Advisor tool.

Clients are asked to rank their six financial priorities – investment portfolio, retirement, family and giving, cashflow, adviser and being financially organised – before sitting in front of a webcam. Then, as Money Marketing columnist and Finance & Technology Research Centre director Ian McKenna explained, you listen to a three-minute financial video.

While this happens, the software system monitors your face and its 43 facial muscles that provide 170 facial tracking points and applies them to seven emotional states: sadness, fear, anger, happiness, surprise, disgust and neutral. At the end of those three minutes the system automatically generates a report, outlining your personal reactions to the various issues outlined in the video.

Courtesy of Ian’s link to the website where you can try the system out, I logged on and gave it a whirl. After innumerable attempts where the facial recognition technology tried – and failed – to link up with the various parts of my face it was supposed to, I eventually got my report.

To be honest, I am not entirely sure what all this is supposed to prove. I am sure there is something of vital importance in all this, but it is not clear to me what it is.

The report tells me that contrary to what I stated, I am more focused on my investment portfolio than I am on my retirement. But my investment portfolio is what I am using to fund my retirement, which makes the two issues interlinked.

What was also baffling was the attempted comparison between myself and peers in my age group. They appear to regard cashflow as the foremost priority, whereas I ranked it much lower – and the post-video analysis confirmed that ranking. That, possibly, is a function of their current income and expenditure and mine. Or is it? I did not understand the purpose of that comparison.

Another concern is over the “reading” of my emotions. I registered astonishingly low levels of fear or surprise in respect of all the financial scenarios. I simply do not recognise that in myself: I am afraid about my finances and some of the decisions I take. I am often surprised when my decisions turn out to be correct.

Its analysis seems rudimentary: my strong suspicion is that despite its proclaimed 173 facial tracking points the facial recognition technology used here is still at a primitive level.

Just to test the system, three of us in our cottage this week each tested the technology several times, giving duff emails to get new reports. We did it drunk, sober, pulling faces, looking straight ahead or keeping our faces immobile. It was better than Pictionary. The reports all came out different, depending on relatively small facial movements, including raised eyebrows or a slight change in our smiles.

And what does it all mean anyway? The Emotion Advisor tool helpfully provides insights into my scores: “You might value timelessness and simplicity over being in fashion. When your individual financial decisions and your values are misaligned, there can be very strong negative emotions. When they are aligned, there can be great joy. Use your emotional reactions to start a dialogue around your financial values.”

Frankly, this is the kind of automated bull that weakens the argument for automated advice rather than the reverse. If I want to “start a dialogue” with an adviser, I will call up him or her, outline my needs and ask for advice. More importantly, I want my adviser to tell me things I do not want to know but are vital for me to act on: like taking out a new life policy since my old one ran out in December.

Do not get me wrong: I strongly believe in this kind of stuff. I believe that it can change the future of advice in a few more years’ time. But not just yet – and not without a lot more work to make it more accurate.

Nic Cicutti can be contacted at nic@inspiredmoney.co.uk