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All Tuned Up

For those of you who don’t know, Marc Albertson comes from a musical family. Marc’s father, George, was the song leader in his church and his mother, Jeane, played the organ. During their growing up years, George, Jeane and their five children sang as a family in north Georgia and east Tennessee churches.

The music sometimes ventured outside the church. In 1965 Marc’s father ran for the elected position of Whitfield County Clerk of Court. Showing a prescient political acumen, George recruited the family to record a jingle promoting his campaign which ran on the local radio station. He lost the election but I’m sure it was not because of the singing. For many years, Marc and his brother, Rowland, have sung together in a local gospel quartet and Marc continues to use his musical talent by singing at weddings, funerals, and his church in Macon. Many of our clients have also experienced his musical talent by receiving a phone call on their birthday and hearing Marc’s rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

In December, Marc invited me to a family get-together in Dalton at his sister’s house on Albertson Drive (named after his family). As Marc, Rowland, a long-time Albertson family friend, Butch DeVaughn, and I sat at the same table having brunch, the topic of conversation turned to music. Nearby our table was the Albertson family piano and the conversation took another turn as Butch began talking about tuning pianos. [Butch also comes from a musical family. His grandfather, father, and mother taught music and Butch also tunes pianos.]

I was surprised to learn electronic machines are capable of tuning pianos with little human interaction. This caught my curiosity and I asked which method was better; machine or human ear? Without hesitation and with great enthusiasm Butch responded “Oh, the human ear is always better.” Having no musical ability, I don’t really understand how a human can out-tune a machine, so I did a little research and found the answer.

Paul Poletti is a world renown expert on the construction and restoration of historic pianos. Born in Oakland, California to the son of an aircraft pilot and technician, Mr. Poletti now lives in Barcelona, Spain. In Mr. Poletti’s words the reason human tuning is superior to machines is because:

“…the ear can easily single out precisely those spectral elements which create the acoustic phenomena which we call “out of tune,” rejecting all other “extraneous” sonic information, such as irrelevant overtones, variations in volume, envelope decay, action noise, etc. Electronic machines cannot do this, and they must always subject the sound to all kinds of filtering and electronic trickery to make it appear as though they can “hear”. This imitation of the human capability is more or less successful, but almost never completely so.”

One of the hot topics in the world today, particularly the world of financial advice is “artificial intelligence” or “AI.” Wikipedia defines AI as “intelligence displayed by machines, in contrast with the natural intelligence displayed by humans and other animals.” In the investing world the moniker applied to AI is “Robo-advisor.” Robo-advisors are a class of financial advisor that provide financial advice or investment management with minimal human intervention. The advice is based on mathematical rules or algorithms executed by software programs and, therefore, no human advisor is required. The advantage is cost – machines are less expensive than human beings. But it occurs to me that financial advice is a lot like tuning a piano.

Just as the electronic tuning machine has trouble filtering out extraneous sounds, so the Robo-advisor has trouble filtering the nuances of the client’s hopes and fears. Voice inflection, subtle body language, facial expressions and reactions are the “extraneous sounds” that the Robo-advisor finds difficult to identify.

Human advisors also have another big advantage over Robo’s. A human advisor develops a relationship with the client and during that process they learn a lot of background information a Robo may never know. A skilled advisor gets to know the client’s family, their education, what kind of career they have, health issues, special needs, generational issues, and the list goes on and on.

Perhaps Robo-advisors will one day be able to go toe-to-toe with a human advisor, but my money says an experienced and well-trained human advisor will always be superior to algorithms. Technology and software has its place and we make full use of it at Patton Albertson & Miller. But we believe technology enhances the job of the advisor; it doesn’t replace them.

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