You’re probably familiar by now with the term “robo-advisor,” used to reference online investment platforms such as Wealthfront and Betterment.
Even though the term is widely used, it’s contentious. After all, there aren’t actually robots managing money per se; it simply describes a somewhat amorphous category for various forms of internet and technology-based wealth management.
When reading about these companies, it’s common to see caveats like “so-called robo-advisors” and “sometimes called robo-advisors,” which made us wonder: Who coined the term?
Googling doesn’t turn up much beyond the last three to four years of cyclical discussion of whether robo-advice is a threat to traditional, human advisors. (Answer: Depends on who you ask.)
But a deeper dive — in this case, through research database Lexus Nexis — turns up one outlier: a March 2002 article by Richard J. Koreto in “Financial Planning” magazine, titled “Robo-Adviser: In a new world of intense 401(k) anxiety brought about by the Enron fiasco, the only hand investors may have to hold may be digital.”
In the article, which only uses the term in the headline, Koreto discusses what two online retirement advice companies (mPower, now a subsidiary of Morningstar, and Financial Engines, which appears to still be operating independently) mean for the future of personalised advice. “Are these virtual advisers our allies, our partners — or our rivals?” he asks, setting off over a decade of debate.
In the piece, Koreto neither uses the “so-called” caveat nor writes “I thee dub you: robo-advisor!” so whether this is the actual first-ever use of the term is unconfirmed. There’s no way to search water cooler chats from 12 years ago.
The next time either “robo-advisor” or “robo-adviser” appears in print seems to be in 2011, in “Financial Adviser,” and then it’s all over the place starting in 2012. We haven’t stopped using it since.
When we can dispense with the caveats is a separate discussion.