While technology has come a long way over the last 10 or 20 years there are still moments when we spend a lot of time annoyed at our computers. But that’s because, these days, we’ve really gotten pretty spoiled by them. If they don’t IMMEDIATELY serve our needs, we throw our hands up in frustration.

So what about these so-called “robo-advisors”? If a decent robot can build and manage an investment portfolio for you, why would you need a human advisor?

Today, I’m talking about the role of robo-advisors.

You’d think, as a flesh-and-blood financial advisor, I’d have a bone to pick with my computerized competition – those so-called “robo-advisors.” But the truth is, there are some things decent software can do so fast and so well, we humans may be better off assuming “if we can’t  beat ’em, we might as well join ’em.” At least for the chores that lend themselves to automation.

As computers get “smarter”, that list of chores that they can manage gets longer. But I get ahead of myself. First, let’s define robo-advisor.

For our purposes, I’m talking about online services that are designed to automate the care and feeding of your investment portfolio. Most of them offer multiple account “ flavours,” plain vanilla accounts for everyday investing, as well as TFSA and RRSP accounts for your retirement money. They typically offer a menu of pre-fab portfolios to choose from, usually, though not always, built with a collection of Exchange-Traded Funds, or ETFs.

Your robo-advisor relationship begins when you order up one of their portfolios.

If you want to go for higher expected returns and you can accept a wilder ride, you may choose the aggressive or moderate portfolio. If you’re mostly trying to keep your money safe & sound, you’ll probably pick a conservative one.

Your robo-advisor takes it from there … moving your money in, investing it according to plan, keeping it in line over time, and providing you with a friendly interface to keep an eye on things.

Now, multiply that general scenario by the dozen or more mainstream robo-advisors available. How do you decide which one is right for you?

The Globe and Mail 2017 Robo-Adviser Guide, is a good place to start (it does require a subscription). It drills into each robo-advisor’s specific set-up, including its launch date, ownership, minimum account size, and a slew of investment particulars. Whether personalized advice is part of the deal or not, and what kinds of customer support are available.

And the costs. Don’t forget those! They aren’t the only factor, but they’re certainly an important part of the equation.

Once you’ve got a flurry of facts in hand – then what? As I’ve covered before, not all ETFs are created equal. Not by a long shot. So it’s worth understanding these underlying holdings, even if you don’t have to be in charge of choosing each one. If it’s mostly garbage going into your portfolio, guess what? You can expect to get the same back out.

Here’s another good question: Even if you’re building your portfolio with well-managed ETFs, how many of them are optimal? Three? Eight? 122? As my PWL colleague Dan Bortolotti points out in his podcast, “Here Comes the Robots,” a few good, low-cost funds that are effectively diversified may be better than a handful of costly, complicated stinkers.

On another subject, what happens if your robo-advisor is bought up by a big conglomerate or goes out of business entirely? With tight profit margins in a highly competitive arena, the process of elimination already is underway. For example, Wealthsimple recently raised a chunk of capital from Power Financial, and Nest Wealth has raised money from National Bank. These wheelings and dealings are likely to continue, which could alter the nature of what you thought you bought.

Plus, even if your robo-advisor doesn’t change, you might. Let’s say you choose your first robo-advisor portfolio partly because you meet the minimum dollar amount. Hopefully, your wealth will grow over time and with it, you’ll be able to afford new possibilities.

I’ve got one more interesting wrinkle to add to the mix. Recently, Vanguard launched a set of “asset allocation ETFs” that may give the traditional robo-advisors a run for your money.

The secret is in the costs. Vanguard’s trio of asset class ETFs replicate many of the features a robust robo-advisor has to offer, including automatic rebalancing, for a fraction of the typical cost. And, because it’s Vanguard, the underlying funds seem much less likely to change because some third-party banker gets in on the deal.  My colleague Justin Bender recently took a closer look at these funds if you’d like to learn more.

Whew! Where does that leave us?

If you are going to work with a human advisor, I recommend seeking one who is neither for nor against robo-advisors per se. An advisor can add the most value if she understands these and other financial products that you’ve got in mind, and doesn’t have a vested interest in pushing one over another when advising you about the best course of action for you or your family.

Fortunately, that’s what “No Dumb Questions” is all about – to help you have these kinds of conversations!