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Software Helps Keep Your Shopping In Check


Continuing our conversation about personal finance, we just talked about apps like Mint and how people are using them to keep tabs on their personal finances, but Omar Green and his new software company want to take it even further to help you make good decisions about your money. And let's just say you might not need to call Mom quite so often. We'll let him explain. Omar Green is the CEO and cofounder of wallet.AI and he's with us now to tell us more. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

OMAR GREEN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: First explain the name, wallet.AI.

GREEN: It's really wallet artificial intelligence, it kind of implies exactly what we do - building machines that help you make smarter decisions about your finances.

MARTIN: Now, you went to MIT and majored in what, engineering? Right?

GREEN: Yeah, I was a mechanical and electrical engineer.

MARTIN: And then you started working for Intuit, which makes financial and tax preparations software like QuickBooks, Mint or TurboTax - a lot of people would've heard of those and we just talked about those just a couple of minutes ago. What do you think you can do that these products don't do?

GREEN: Ooh. Well, so I think it's good to think about how those tools generally get used, to understand the differences that we have. In general, when people are using a tool like Mint or Quicken, or even some of the others that are out there, they are focused in a pretty serious way. They're concentrated on trying to figure out what's going on with their taxes. There's a whole decision-making process that goes on there. But the vast majority of our time is spent away from that kind of decision-making.

We are running around most of the day, making thousands of little decisions each day and there aren't any tools that are focused on that kind of decision-making, and that is what it is that we do at wallet.AI. We focus on those kinds of decisions as opposed to the ones that are there today.

MARTIN: So you use technology called Quantified Self. Talk a little bit about that. And how do you plan to use it so that people can make better financial decisions?

GREEN: Sure, so we work as a part of a series of tools - I think is probably the best way to frame that up. Where Quantified Self plays a role is in helping us coach you to making those better decisions. So as it happens, if you look at the work of a bunch of cognitive scientists or behavioral economists or people who study how we think and what we do and what happens when we do the things we do, you find that we don't always make the best decisions. We don't always make the best choices, and that in some ways we're wired not to make those choices so great.

Our brains are not really designed to make those decisions so well. And so what we do is, by grabbing the information around you when you're making those decisions, looking at the context in which those decisions are made, we can help coach you in the same way that the Quantified Self folks grab data around them if they're a runner and they want to improve their running performance or what have you, and then use that information to coach that person to be a better runner. We do the exact same thing with your finances.

MARTIN: So you and I go to the mall and I see some cute shoes.

GREEN: Oh, please, let's do that.

MARTIN: The software is going to do what? Say, those look really good on you, Michel? Or what? What's it going to do? (Laughing)

GREEN: Well, it might do a lot of things. So what wallet.AI would do is, even before we got to the mall, it would be conversing with you on a fairly regular basis about what the state of your finances were. Telling you, in effect, whether or not you were in a position where you could easily afford to buy those shoes or whether you might have to make some sacrifices to afford those shoes, or whether or not you just shouldn't care and should just go out and really enjoy yourself and buy those shoes. And then when you're in that moment...

MARTIN: ...So it's like the guy in the elevator, when the woman gets on with a bag, says have you been shopping again?

GREEN: (Laughing) It's actually more...

MARTIN: It delegates itself to be your husband, right?

GREEN: Well, we try to stay away from the nagging thing because nagging turns everybody off. What we would wind up doing in that case is nudging you, and it may very well be that hey, buy those shoes but you might want to avoid the latte next week.

MARTIN: How would this work to address your money management skills?

GREEN: OK, so the first thing that we would have to do is to take more data than just your financial data. We collect, not just the stuff that's coming out of your bank, which a great many other tools like Mint and Quicken do - but we also look at the data that's part of your social networks. And we look at something that some of the real Ph.D.-types call human telemetrics. That we are effectively monitoring the things around you - who you're with, how much time you're spending with them, what applications you might have used on your phone, that sort of thing.

And we put all of that stuff into a mountain of financial and nonfinancial models so that we can get ahead of you a little bit. We can make some predictions about what you're likely to do. And it's from those predictions that we're able to sit down with you at a time when you are thinking or in that moment when you're about to buy those shoes and remind you of those things, reinforce for you those kinds of behaviors that end up giving you better financial outcomes.

MARTIN: So if your pattern is that you tend to, say, go out on Thursday night every two weeks when you get paid, what might happen?

GREEN: So we literally might find that on those Tuesdays nights where you are with your friends Richard and John, that you are prone to spend too much money and not be able to afford your rent at the end of the month. And so what we might say to you is on Monday night or Tuesday morning or throughout the course of Tuesday, you know, John is probably not going to be someone you want to hang out with tonight because you have rent coming up.

MARTIN: That is so cold. That is so cold.

GREEN: It's definitely where the...

MARTIN: ...And so your friends better not find out on Facebook that you're on this and they're telling you, like, not to hang out.

GREEN: Hey, man, let's go and hang out, but - or hang out in a different place.

MARTIN: So it's kind of like that little, you know, when they have, like, the angel and the devil on your shoulder.

GREEN: Exactly.

MARTIN: It's a little angel on your shoulder saying, remember, you wanted to save for a down payment or, you know, remember, versus the one saying...

GREEN: Well, we can also be a little devil, right, that says to you, hey, look, you've been so good for so long, it's time to, you know, really go out and, you know, let your hair down.

MARTIN: Omar, you still haven't kind of worked the shoes into the equation now. Now we've been on this trip to the mall for quite some time and somehow I still haven't gotten my shoes, so what's - like, what's going on here? So would the...

GREEN: Well, so...

MARTIN: Would the software say, don't get the shoes, or might it say, bypass Neiman's and go to Payless?

GREEN: Well, I think it's more likely that the software, given the way this conversation is going, is going to say to you, we know that these shoes are important to you, buy these shoes and we will work with you to figure out how we can afford these shoes. Which might very well be shuffling some things around, financially, for you, or may very well be, we're going to borrow against your future so you can get these shoes now and this is the plan that we're going to use to make sure that all gets paid back.

MARTIN: That sounds a little punitive, Omar, but I'll just - but, OK, well, you and I are having fun right now but one of the things...

GREEN: Very much so.

MARTIN: What occurs to me is that it seems to - it seems to require a lot of personal information. It seems to require that you give up a lot of personal information to this device or to this program, including about your friends. And I'm wondering, are people really going to do that?

GREEN: Well, I can tell you that in fact we're already sort of doing it. There's a certain amount of trust that we give over to tools all the time. There's an example I like to use of using Google Maps or a Garmin piece of software to tell you where to go when you're driving.

There is, in my mind, very, very few things - or are very few things - that are as dangerous as driving at 65 miles an hour down a road you've never been down before and looking to make a turn, and yet we trust a piece of software with our lives to effectively tell us which lane to be in, how fast to go and whether or not to turn right or left at the next light. That's no different in a lot of ways to what we're starting to see happen with personal finance software and, in fact, some of this Quantified Self stuff too, where we're trusting machines to do a little bit more analysis than we can do or have a slightly better point of view than we have right now and be able to guide us around a bit.

MARTIN: What gave you the idea for this?

GREEN: Oh, goodness, that's a great...

MARTIN: ...Do you have, like, a really great mom who's always calling you up and telling you, Omar, remember, put some money in your savings account?


GREEN: Well, yeah, I certainly did when I was in school. My parents were really, really good about that sort of thing. But really, it was the combination of seeing all the great customer research that I had access to when I was at Intuit, but also at the same time getting exposed to the work of folks like Daniel Kahneman, who's a cognitive scientist, wrote a great book called "Thinking, Fast and Slow," that sort of changed my thinking about how to build things. But also the work of a number of behavioral economists and I just - I'm one of those guys that reads a lot of stuff, and so some day I just put those two things together in a kind of strange way and realized that no one had built technology that was supposed to help me with my money decisions when I was actually making them.

I can maybe, with my engineering background and with a little help from some folks, be able to build a tool that works when I'm actually standing in line at the grocery store with, you know, 3-year-old kids screaming up and down the aisles and be able to make the right kind of decisions that I need to make, because this thing has done a lot of that sit-down-at-the-desk thinking for me and can prompt me to do the right things.

MARTIN: Just don't forget my birthday present, OK?

GREEN: Never.

MARTIN: OK. Omar Green is the CEO and cofounder of wallet.AI. He joined us from San Francisco, California. Omar Green, thank you.

GREEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.