Banks in HK have to plug into artificial intelligence

Updated: 2017-04-11 07:55

By Peter Liang(HK Edition)

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To maintain its lead as the region's premier international financial center, Hong Kong will need to get serious about pushing its banking industry to adopt artificial intelligence (AI).

AI will be a big leap forward from automation, which seeks to dehumanize the banking experience. Hong Kong banks have made tremendous progress in automating a range of services, helping cut overhead costs.

In addition some major banks have moved much of their backroom operations to low-cost bases on the Chinese mainland and other regional economies. Most consumers are doing their banking online to save time and money.

It's all well and proper - except when something unexpected happens. This happened to me when I was living in Shanghai. One night, the bank's ATM machine from which I withdrew cash regularly refused to accept my Hong Kong bank cards. More alarming was that the printout from the machine showed there was no money in my account.

I had to wait until the next day to call the bank and was told the Hong Kong government had introduced a new rule requiring the registration of bank cards before they could be used outside the special administrative region. It involved a simple process which could be completed online in minutes. But I had to spend a sleepless night wondering what happened to my savings before I could find someone at the bank to help sort things out.

Indeed, bank customers are getting used to automation. But that doesn't mean they stop valuing the personal service and advice from bank staff. To satisfy customers' needs, banks in some developed economies are turning more and more to AI.

Banks in HK have to plug into artificial intelligence

A report from consultancy firm Accenture suggests AI will play an increasingly important role in the way banks interact with their customers. It's not talking about some kind of scientific vision. Some banks have already invested heavily in the technology and are ready to introduce the service within the next three years.

Alan McIntyre of Accenture told the BBC that the technology of AI "will actually help banking become a lot more personalized, (taking) banking back to the feeling that people had when there were more human interactions".

Instead of sitting down at the computer to log on the bank's website, a consumer can contact a chatbot at the bank on one of the social platforms to do a range of transactions such as getting balance information or making a money transfer. What's more, the robot at the other end of the line can offer advice and suggestions depending on the customer's needs.

Some robots are programmed to detect the customer's mood and sense whether the customer is frustrated or happy with the service so it can react accordingly. Results of tests on robotic services at banks in various European cities have shown that it is well-received by customers. According to BBC, Swedbank's Nina web assistant now has an average of 30,000 conversations a month and can handle more than 350 different customer questions.

Intelligent personal assistant is a technology that is already widely used in smartphones. They include Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Samsung's newly introduced Bixby. In other areas, Netflix, for instance, is using AI to learn viewers' habits and preferences and offer advice in the background.

McIntyre of Accenture told BBC that in researching for the report, he found consumers were surprisingly willing to accept robotic advice about banking products. As such, robots can be a cost-effective way to sell bank products in addition to their other functions.

Hong Kong banks simply cannot afford to ignore this new technology to service their customers, whose needs can no longer be fully satisfied by simple number-crunching machines.

The author is a veteran public affairs commentator.

(HK Edition 04/11/2017 page8)