Humanoid robots take their share of unstaffed services

Just a few years ago robots were considered as mere gadgets envisioned by very creative science-fiction authors. With rapid technology advances in both robotics and artificial intelligence it became quite clear that humanoid artificial companions were no longer sweet dreamers’ utopias. While the first use cases of their abilities were thought to be housekeeping and providing help for the elderly, it seems that humanoid robotics is mature enough to play a much bigger role. This disruptive technology is now being used to humanize banking experience and to give banks branches a new start. We should better get used to it. Humanoid robots will be a new global professional tool much sooner than we think.

A banking experience more human with a robot

As curious as it may sounds, the first attempt to use a humanoid robot inside a bank is to make the banking experience more human. HDFC Bank Limited, which is one of India’s biggest financial institutions, has positioned an assistive humanoid robot right after the entrance doors of select HDFC Bank branches around the country. IRA, that’s the name of the AI powered robot, can identify customers, carry conversations, and guide them to specific counters based on their intended transactions.

Rajnish Khare, senior vice president and head of digital transformation, notes that “Many customers walk in to the branches, especially senior citizens who require in-person assistance to guide them to the correct staff or service counter. Branch staff has to invest a lot of time in replying to the basic customer queries, which affects productivity” (1). IRA’s job is first about telling customers which counter to go to. They can also have IRA guide them to the counters. Humanoid robots in the banking industry are mainly used to accomplish, at least, four tasks which are:

– help customers fulfil their financial needs,

– let bankers focus on more complex tasks,

– allow employees to focus more on truly building relationships,

– use technology to take non-value-added activities away from bankers.

Robots are reviving the branch

Humanoid robots already have proved their ability to revive the branches’ attractiveness and more and more bankers firmly believe that, in the close future, they will even generate more revenues. Pablo Sanchez, regional head of retail banking and wealth management for HSBC’s U.S. and Canada operations says: “The death of the branch has been touted for the past 10 years, but what we find is the branch is still one of the most important reasons people choose a financial institution, [our humanoid robot] educates and gives people awareness of other ways to transact or to get human interaction — we don’t want to lose the human touch.” (2)

The branch will no longer be a boring place from where you want to be out as soon as possible. The humanoid robots will reduce wait time. One of their strategical tasks will consist in assisting and encouraging customers to use technical tools the bank is making available to its clients. The Shanghai branch of the China Construction Bank (CCB) is run by technology. (3) This includes virtual reality, artificial intelligence and facial recognition. China’s second biggest bank already has 360 branches across the city operating smart machines. Its smart automated tellers are capable of account opening, money transfer, foreign exchange, gold investment and the issue of wealth management products. These technological efforts will make clients aware of banks’ products and services. It is expected to draw more business because it is going to drive more people into the door.

Pepper is leading the way

HSBC is now leading the way to the durable establishment of humanoid robots in the banking industry. It already has posted seven of its Pepper robots in the lobby of their Fifth Avenue branch. The AI-powered machine has been created by SoftBank Robotics. “Pepper was developed as a robot that would have a presence with people and create an empathetic relationship with technology.” (4) says Steve Carlin, chief strategy officer at SoftBank Robotics North America. It is based on a previously developed 58-centimeter robot called NAO by the French robotics firm Aldebaran and was widely used in academic and laboratory settings. The little robot was used to help teach autistic children in the U.K. and used for customer service by Mizuho Bank for its bank branches in Japan.

Pepper can pitch a credit card and is able to ask a human colleague to help close a deal. He can dance, poses for selfies and tells jokes. For the bank’s executives if Pepper can improve users’ experiences HSBC will roll them out to more of its 228 U.S. branches. It will indeed gradually increase Pepper’s capabilities. Users will be able to complete product applications on Pepper’s in-built tablet and newer improvements will be introduced to its branches. HSBC spent $131 million on the robots and on other disrupting technologies like voice identification and intelligent digital banking application. You can be sure that these are no gadgets. They do instead prefigure next generation banking tools that may help fighting the increasingly threatening fintech start-ups.

(1) Asian Banking and Finance
(2) Digiday
(3) Mirror