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People attracted to financial advice from robots because they consider it impartial

Consumer acceptance of software robots providing banking support is increasing and banks are investing heavily in the technology

More than two-thirds (68%) of UK consumers would use software robots for banking services and a quarter are attracted to the impartiality of advice given by robots.

Impartial advice from robots was seen as an attraction by 25% of UK respondents, with that figure rising to just under one-third for over-65s.

The findings are in a report from IT services giant Accenture following a survey 32,715 people, 3,007 of them from the UK. The findings will fuel more investment in artificial intelligence (AI) by finance firms that are looking to cut costs and improve customer services.

According to the survey, consumers in Luxembourg were the most likely to use robot advice (81%), Italians were the second most enthusiastic (79%), the Spanish came next (78%), followed by Brits and Swedes tied on 68%.

Despite the growing acceptance of robotic software agents in banking, the study also revealed that visits to UK retail bank branches were at their the highest level since 2010.

Peter Kirk, head of distribution and marketing services at Accenture in the UK, said retail banks were investing in robo-advice services to improve efficiency and reduce costs for customers.

But he said banks needed to strike the right balance between human and robot services.

“While consumers seem open to new forms of technology and advice and are seemingly more comfortable interacting with robots for certain types of financial services, their reliance on high-street branches continues,” said Kirk. “Banks need to recognise that for many consumers, including the younger generation, the shift toward computer-generated services cannot be at the expense of access to human service at their local bank. The demand for branches seems set to continue.”

But this might fall on deaf ears as UK banks are planning further branch closures in less populated areas.

Banks have accelerated their use of AI to cut costs and increase service levels, with the high level of consumer acceptance, such as that revealed in the Accenture study, spurring more investment.

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Banks have not been shy to announce their plans around AI, which reflects customer acceptance.

Middle East banking group Emirates NBD is piloting an intelligent virtual assistant with selected customers and plans to launch it soon. The bank is testing out voice-based AI in the form of chat bot Eva. The software will understand the customer’s request and route them directly to the appropriate menu by voice and chat, allowing self-service where possible, or routing to a customer service agent to resolve the query.

In October 2016, SEB in Sweden became the first bank to use IPsoft’s cognitive technology, known as Amelia, for customer services after the software robot proved successful in an internal IT service desk project. Amelia can read 300 pages in 30 seconds and learn through experience by observing the interactions between human agents and customers. 

In the UK, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) is using IBM Watson technology to provide a robot that will answer customer questions and pass requests on to the right agents. The Luvo cognitive chat bot, which uses IBM’s cloud-based Watson Conversation service, was made available to about 10% of RBS’s customers in Scotland in December 2016 as part of its first customer pilot.

Meanwhile, challenger bank Atom Bank announced it was offering customer support through machine learning software on its mobile app, which it said would provide near-human customer care, and Mastercard is using AI in its global network to provide more effective transaction approval.

Robots replace humans

Elsewhere in financial services, Japanese insurance company Fukoku Mutual Life Insurance is replacing 34 members of its claims assessment team with IBM Watson. The software will read medical documents that are used to assess payments. The robots will calculate payment amounts, but final decisions will still be made by a human. The company expects to cut costs by almost £1m through a 30% reduction of staff in the department.

But there is a cautionary tale. Ahead of its annual meeting in Davos, the World Economic Forum has highlighted the risks associated with AI in its Global Risk Report 2017.

Based on a survey of 750 experts, the report warned that AI, biotech and robotics offered among the highest benefits to society, but they also required the most legislation.

The World Economic Forum warned that governance of emerging technologies was patchy. Some were regulated heavily, but others hardly at all because they did not fit under the remit of any existing regulatory body, it said. Mechanisms often did not exist for those responsible for governance to interact with people at the cutting edge of research, the report noted.

“It can be hard to anticipate what second-order or third-order effects might need to be safeguarded against. History shows that the eventual benefits and risks of a new technology can differ widely from expert opinion at the outset,” the forum said.

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