'Hey Siri, pay my phone bill': ING Direct's bet on AI

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'Hey Siri, pay my phone bill': ING Direct's bet on AI

Are we heading towards the era of "conversational banking"?

Imagine if you could tell your smartphone, Google Home, or Amazon Echo to pay a bill, transfer money, or pull up your account balance.

This is a future-state ING Direct is actively working towards.

The online bank’s new chief information officer Aniruddha Paul is excited about what he calls “conversational banking” - what he considers to be the next digital revolution for the finance sector.

He was easily sold on Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s recent declaration that the world is in the early stages of a shift from mobile-first to one led by artificial intelligence (Microsoft's CEO has made the same prediction), and has spent his first few months as ING’s Australian CIO preparing the business for this eventuality.

Paul is anticipating that over the next five years, customers will increasingly expect their bank to be ubiquitous, allowing them to manage their finances from any platform they choose.

That ubiquity will involve more traditional channels - like a bank’s own website - as well as things like a customer’s social media account to a range of devices beyond the smartphone, he says.

“The era that we are going into is from customers visiting us on our digital assets, to our customers choosing not to talk to us at all but talk amongst themselves, and for us to listen in and act on that,” Paul says.

The ability to tap in on this public conversation and respond in a way that is actually valuable to the customer requires some pretty sophisticated technology.

Paul sees this type of virtual assistant as being made up of several core components: a listening service, a natural language engine, and what Paul calls an “intent’ engine that can understand what the customer wants, and how to best provide what they need, with context considered.

“[We shouldn’t] be expecting our customers to talk in banking language like ‘what is my account balance’ - that for bankers is really straightforward, but a normal person on the street would probably say ‘how much money do I have in my account?’”

Beyond that initial understanding banks also need to be able to offer valuable insights, he says - so when a customer asks for their account balance, the response should be not only the dollar figure but also how long this money is likely to last based on the person’s spending habits.

“Then you feel reassured and maybe then you go and buy your Prada bag.”

ING Direct’s IT team has already built what it terms a conversational banking engine that can be adapted across different digital channels. Paul won’t say what specific technologies it is made up of while it is still in development.

They’re testing it with Google Home and Amazon’s Echo right now, as well as with Google’s mobile Assistant and Apple’s Siri.

But the technology mostly bedded down, it’s now a matter of working out - with the business - how to actually use it.

“The use cases are linked to the customer. The interactions that you employ in a call centre, for example, you could use this to respond more flexibly to your customers, then introduce a human if the customer issue hasn’t been addressed,” Paul said.

“The opportunities are vast.”

The creepy factor

But the actual technology is just one aspect of the ‘conversational banking’ movement Paul sees playing out over the next five years.

Arguably the more important factor is working out what level of involvement customers will and will not accept into their digital lives.

“You may be comfortable speaking to your phone in the confines of your car, but you wouldn’t like to do that with people around you, especially with banking,” Paul concedes.

“If you’re around family, maybe it’s somewhere in between. Modelling the human behaviour is something we are working on.”

ING is currently embarking on “environmental scanning” to ensure the bank is hitting the right notes with its customers.

Someone complaining about a lack of money on their personal Facebook page is unlikely to react positively to their bank injecting itself into the conversation to offer a credit card product, for example.

“What’s the grey line between insightful and being creepy?” Paul says.

"That’s more of a marketing dilemma than a technical one. I may know all about you, but would you really like it if I exposed that and hit you with an intervention that you may not like?

“A lot of this is more about insight than technical capability; what we should or shouldn’t do, and working out what is meaningful for the customer.”

He cites the example of someone who is overseas needing to use their debit card outside of Australia; banks traditionally require you to come to them for that service, but Paul reckons a better approach is to use technology to be proactive.

“Thanks to your mobile being switched on, and [ING’s] app listening to your mobile, I know that you’re overseas, so is there something I can offer you in that regard through something like a notification?” he says.

“Artificial intelligence is about interacting with the customer not so much in the explicit, but in the implicit. An example would be: a customer wants to know their account balance - that’s the explicit - but the implicit thing they want to know is ‘can I afford that?’”

Keeping secure

Being able to yell at your Google Home to transfer your mate Dave $20 sounds great, but the more channels that are opened up to banking, the bigger the attack surface becomes.

Paul’s not too worried about this. He says you can actually make the banking service more secure by adding security capabilities from partner devices on top of the bank’s existing protections.

“It is quite possible for a Siri or Google Assistant to recognise your voice as distinct from my voice. So even if there’s a Google Home device lying around in the open, if I tried to be you Google wouldn’t allow it,” he says.

"That’s a security layer over and above the banking layers; those kinds of defences that our partners have already thought of get overlaid on top of ours. Which makes it more secure.”

Customers using a future ING Bank service on these types of devices would still need to enter their existing online and mobile banking credentials to use the service.

There’s also the potential to use the technologies within third-party devices to enhance the existing banking experience, he says.

“A mobile is not just a browsing device or something to make calls on; it has an accelerometer, facial recognition, voice recognition - all of those things are capable of being used for digital services.”

There’s no timeline for when ING Direct customers can expect to conduct their banking on a Google Home or Amazon Echo; Paul says that roadmap is currently being development within the business. Neither device is officially available in Australia yet.

But he points out that Google goes to market with products that are still in beta, indicating ING Direct could potentially do the same.

“The ability to put something out and take customer feedback and decide how you want to morph it is much more important than not experimenting at all.”

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