Pioneer Investments of Boston has added artificial intelligence to its website (www.pioneerfunds.com) to help visitors find information and obtain guidance on working with a financial intermediary.
Pioneer is the first mutual fund company to use online robots. Two of the robots, "Janet" and "Logan", are available on the public portion of the website while "Keith" is available on the password-protected section for financial intermediaries.
The online robots - called bots by their developer and Pioneer - were developed by Artificial Life of Boston, a developer of interactive Internet software.
The bots respond to questions that visitors type into a dialogue box, through written responses or by bringing up a section of the website relevant to the question.
The bots are also programmed to respond to spoken language inquiries. Pioneer programs how the bots will respond to questions.
"This effort, a first for the mutual fund industry, shows Pioneer is focused on the customer - either the financial intermediary or the end shareholder," said Iang Jeon, managing director of Pioneer's e-Commerce group. Currently, Internet users can ask questions, by speaking, and receive answers in the form of directions to web pages. Pioneer has furthered this technology by providing customized responses, in the form of written speech from the bots.
"We wanted to take natural language to the next level and have conversational dialogue," he said.
Janet the CyberGuide can answer questions about Pioneer's selection of mutual funds or about mutual fund investing in general. She provides responses to basic questions such as "What is a mutual fund?" in a written response in the dialogue box. She may also produce an appropriate page of information when a visitor inquires about a Roth IRA or Pioneer's international funds, for example.
If asked for a recommendation on a particular fund to invest in or the best way to save for retirement, Janet steers visitors to Logan. She says flatly that she cannot give personal advice.
Logan, called the CyberPro and clad in a suit and tie, responds to questions about working with a financial representative. He can explain how different intermediaries are compensated or conduct practice interviews with brokers.
If a visitor expresses an interest in working with an advisor, Logan directs the visitor to complete an online form so that he will be contacted by an advisor.
If visitors are unsure of what to ask, Janet and Logan will direct them to a list of "starter topics" on the site. Visitors can click any of the topics to obtain more information and the list may spark questions that they may want to ask the bots.
If visitors ask inappropriate questions of Janet and Logan, such as, "Does Pioneer pay you well?' they are told the question is inappropriate and are urged to revert to the topic of investing.
Keith's job is to respond to questions from brokers and other intermediaries that relate to individual funds and Pioneer's services. For example, visitors can ask Keith to tell them a particular fund's top ten holdings or performance.
The bots were developed to make investors comfortable with getting information online, said Jeon. People are often intimidated when they want to ask what they may fear are silly questions of real live people, he said.
"The bots allow this semi-personal technology to offer personal assistance," he said.
It makes a lot of sense for mutual funds to use these bots, said Steve Miyao, senior vice president of e-business strategy at kasina.com in New York, a management consulting firm.
"Although it is still pretty new, it is definitely what we will see in the future," he said.
The bots at Pioneer's site are not perfect because they cannot recognize every question asked or always provide the most apt response, Miyao said. But the bots "learn" more appropriate responses after several repetitions of a question.
Still, as much as 80 percent of the questions asked can probably be answered by the cyberbots, he said. For those instances when the bots are stumped, the company could have people monitoring the online conversations and dictating appropriate responses to them, Miyao said.