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AI and money management: Can virtual tech make finance more personal? – Q & A with Tim Spenny, SVP in market research firm GfK’s FS practice

An interview with breakthrough app developer Rob Guilfoyle

As CEO and co-founder of Abe – an online AI platform that can add huge speed and convenience to FS transactions – Rob Guilfoyle is on the front lines of innovation in the financial space. But how can these technologies be best applied to make customers happy and improve business efficiency and ROI? Behind all the hype, what is the real promise of AI for FS firms around the world?

Tim Spenny, a FinTech thought leader and SVP in market research firm GfK’s FS practice, recently sat down with Guilfoyle to learn what the future might hold for AI and finance.

Spenny: What is Abe, and what does it have to do with financial services?

Guilfoyle: As a consumer, when you want to keep track of your finances, you can either log into all of your bank and credit card accounts separately, or maybe use Mint.com or another type of personal financial management application, and hope that the complicated charts, graphs, and budgets will somehow guide you to financial success. But you still have to do a lot of mental work to keep track of your overall net worth and spending habits. And we don’t think that’s realistic for most people, especially younger generations.

Through recent developments in machine learning, technology can do a lot of your financial planning for you. It can detect patterns in spending, identify recurring income and bills, and automatically build a budget tailored to your lifestyle. That’s what we think consumer banking technology should do, and that’s what we built with Abe.

Abe also helps community banks and credit unions interface with consumers in the messaging channels they already use. As a small bank, you’re faced with the decision of, “Do I build an app and hope people download it, or do I add a conversational interface to my services and communicate with customers on the platforms they already use?” Billions of people use messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, SMS, Slack, and WhatsApp every day. Abe improves the customer banking experience by making banking conveniently accessible in these channels and taking the guesswork out of money management.

Spenny: Where do you think AI is now in terms of its application to financial services?

Guilfoyle: I think AI is a misunderstood term; it just means that the underlying technologies for an application are based on a data science concept called machine learning. Machine learning is the ability of a computer program to learn without being explicitly told what to do; it learns on its own from examples and previous experience. Because they mimic how the human brain learns, machine learning technologies are cheaper, more efficient, and more scalable than traditional computer programs.

AI is like any other technology or experience that you build – if it doesn’t feel good to interact with, then it’s not going to be adopted. Right now, banks are not able to make AI into a technology that they feel comfortable releasing; these apps are similar to the first mobile applications, which were clunky, didn’t do a whole lot, and certainly didn’t look beautiful. So it’s up to companies like us, building products like Abe, to show the industry how to make amazing experiences with these types of technologies.

Spenny: When you think about what Abe can do and what bots can do in terms of financial services, what types of tasks do you think are most applicable?

Guilfoyle: The most compelling use case for Abe is to reduce costs and improve the consumer experience. Initially, we see Abe conducting most of the tasks that call centers currently manage, reducing or eliminating the need to maintain an IVR system. Abe can help users conduct any number of tasks – check account balances, review their transaction history, get updates on their budget, and find out when upcoming bills are due or their next paycheck is coming. And the technology is easily scalable; so in the future, Abe could handle any number of other common banking tasks.

Spenny: Do you think that there’s an opportunity for AI in financial services to be more proactive?

Guilfoyle: Definitely. Bots are great for reactive tasks; they’re always sitting there waiting to help. But virtual assistants make for a more proactive, emotional experience. Virtual assistants have the ability to not only perform tasks and answer questions, but also give helpful advice before users even ask for it. And that’s what Abe does. So not only is Abe helping people consolidate their entire financial picture in one place, he also gives people timely reminders to help them stay on top of their finances.

Spenny: Do you feel like Abe could link between bank channels and improve upon the multi-channel or omni-channel experience? So knowing that customer A was in the branch yesterday and is trying to get an update by interacting with Abe, will Abe know why the customer is calling?

Guilfoyle: I think that technology like Abe absolutely can improve upon and even create the glue between experiences. Let’s say that you went into a bank branch, or called a helpline, or applied for a mortgage. The bot or virtual assistant can follow up during the approval process: “Hey, Sam – your mortgage was just processed today. We expect it to be completed in two or three days.” And then, in two or three days, Abe reaches out and lets Sam know that the mortgage is completed, and he can call this number to talk about it, or Sam and Abe can take the next steps together.

That’s one very feasible use case that could go a long way toward improving the consumer experience for banks.

Spenny: Do you think that technologies like Abe would be able to deliver on the increasing expectations of a personalized banking experience – especially with the youngest generations?

Guilfoyle. Yes. We are in the era of information and digitization. And when you have this type of access to information, it is an enormous opportunity to connect the dots that in the past have never been connected – and it feels very magical when that happens. That’s what we’re trying to do with Abe through machine learning. We’re connecting the financial dots for our users to help them better understand and manage their financial lives.

Spenny: Do you see virtual assistants Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, and Siri working together with Abe?

Guilfoyle: Technologies like Abe embed the banking experience into daily life through virtual assistant interfaces. So if a financial institution were to adopt our technology – Abe is compatible with Google Home – their customers could be sitting in their living rooms and say, “Hey Google, talk to my bank.” And then Google would respond with, “This is my bank. Here are the things I can help you with.” And then the customer can say, “What’s my balance?” or “Transfer money.” All of these different things allow you to say, “Hey, talk to my community bank”; and from then on out until you say “Cancel” or “No,” you’re talking to the bank in a dialog through Abe.

Spenny: How long do you think it’s going to take before something like AI or bots will be part of the normal banking experience?

Guilfoyle: I would say that early adopting institutions will have proof of concept, if not small production applications of the technology, in regular use by the end of this year. And I think that 2018 will probably be the year when this starts to go very, very mainstream, as more voice assistant devices are sold, and virtual assistant technologies start getting embedded into the other interfaces in your life – your car and your ISP, for example. Is it conceivable that you will be able to ask your refrigerator one day what your bank balance is? I think the answer is, “Yes.”

Spenny: When it comes to technologies like Abe, how should we be thinking about security and privacy?

Guilfoyle: A lot of the technology that makes up AI and moves data is not new. We pass messages to Facebook the same exact way that your mobile banking app pushes to the core banking providers. So a lot of it happens through APIs; it’s just a different type of interface or experience that you’re consuming it on. Of course, with any new technology come new concerns, but security is always top of mind for AI developers like us.

We’re still in the early stages of the AI movement, and as more companies adopt the technology, it’s only going to become more refined. It’s a really exciting time to be in the industry, and we’re thrilled to be a part of it.

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