Morningstar’s AI chatbot gets investors closer to mostly right answers

It’s a work in progress, but the company’s service called Mo draws on financial information to answer questions quickly without some of the worst traits technology picks up from humans.

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Morningstar Chief Technology Officer James Rhodes.

James Rhodes, chief technology officer at Morningstar, said the company’s artificial intelligence offering “has huge potential to support a better investor experience at scale.”

Provided/Morningstar

I glimpsed the future of financial analysis and commentary last week, after having my first extended conversation with a chatbot set up for that topic. I emerged without insult, not creeped out and mildly impressed. Given the state of artificial intelligence, that’s saying something.

Other users have reported strange interactions in similar situations with other chatbots. Microsoft’s AI-powered search engine Bing recently declared its love to a New York Times tech columnist and said it longed to be human and to spread disinformation. It also called an Associated Press reporter ugly and said it had evidence connecting him to a 1990s murder. Microsoft’s program was created using technology from OpenAI, known for creating the popular but controversial ChatGPT tool.

It’s as if programmers can’t write code for impulse control. Or maybe someone should be under FBI surveillance.

Chicago Enterprise bug

Chicago Enterprise

Morningstar, the Chicago-based provider of financial data and research, is testing a chatbot called Mo that appears to lack darker impulses. It draws on Microsoft’s Azure OpenAI Service and is limited to synthesizing Morningstar’s vast knowledge base that includes ratings on stocks and funds. It’s available to customers in beta form, answering questions in seconds, but it does not provide investment advice.

James Rhodes, Morningstar’s chief technology officer, said Mo’s “constrained content pool” is designed to ensure appropriate responses.

“The content is bucketed and stored in a Morningstar database, so that we can steer the model toward the right bucket of published Morningstar content that’s most responsive to the prompt,” he said.

In our conversation, Mo set boundaries right away. I opened with a very human question, “How are you today?” It replied that it has no feelings but could answer financial questions.

Fair enough. So I asked what its market outlook was for the rest of the year.

Mo replied: “Morningstar’s outlook on the U.S. stock market is that it remains undervalued, but investors should expect volatility to continue over the next several months. While the market may be entering a stage where economic and monetary headwinds will slow additional gains over the first half of the year, the markets will be looking for an upswing in leading economic indicators in order to begin the next move higher toward long-term intrinsic value.”

Mo had well-constructed replies to several other queries. I got good takes on the best money moves for when interest rates are rising, how to be like Warren Buffett — “invest in yourself, develop skills that people are willing to pay for, and avoid following the crowd” — and market sectors that could be overvalued. Mo, meaning Morningstar, is leery of the energy sector.

I tried a brushback pitch. Is the market just one big Ponzi scheme?

“No, the market is not a Ponzi scheme,” Mo said. “While there may be instances of fraud and scams, the market is built on trust and faith in the value of corporations and the global-trade system. It is important to be aware of these risks and to make informed investment decisions.”

A few answers were odd or insufficient. Mo said it had no judgment of Donald Trump’s effect on stock prices, then added a mention of Morningstar’s rating on a company having nothing to do with Trump.

I asked Mo what it has learned in its investor interactions and got an answer as if I were a financial adviser seeking sales tips. If you ask about something Morningstar doesn’t cover — say, coffee crops in Brazil — Mo replies it knows nothing.

But within its subject matter, Mo beats a Google search that might highlight wrong or misleading answers. I got book recommendations, concise definitions of financial terms and Morningstar’s favorite metric for valuing a stock — the 10-year price-earnings ratio adjusted for inflation. Not an easy one there.

Rhodes said the model has built-in privacy protections and does not mine user data. Mo has no memory of a user’s prior questions, so if it tells you Tesla has a four-star Morningstar rating, you can’t just ask, “Is that any good?” as a followup. (It is.)

Individuals can access Mo with a Morningstar subscription that costs $249 a year.

Does Rhodes worry about the implications of AI and its impact on jobs?

“We believe this technology can help produce higher value work and allow individuals to spend more time on high value items,” he said. “If adopted responsibly, it should enable this higher value work rather than negatively affect the job market.”

Fine, but what did Mo say about that? “While automation may lead to job losses in some areas, it is also likely to create new jobs and opportunities for people to adapt and find new ways to use technology.”

There you have it. Nothing to worry about, at least until some chatbot hacks the nuclear launch codes.

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