Rabobank: a future robot bank?

Artificial intelligence

While the notion of banking customers receiving advice from robots may seem like something out of a science-fiction movie, Rabobank has long been following trends in robotics and other branches of artificial intelligence with interest. What does the bank see as some of the key opportunities for the future in this field?

Artificial intelligence (AI) involves the analysis and automation of a whole range of activities that require intelligence – with the human brain, of course, serving as the ultimate source of inspiration. The British mathematician Alan Turing, the founder of computer science, developed the Turing test to determine machine intelligence. He postulated that if a computer can fool a person into thinking that it is a fellow human, that computer is deemed intelligent. The year 1997 was the first time a chess computer (IBM's Deep Blue) beat a reigning world champion and technology has advanced in leaps and bounds ever since.

Complex advice

Rabobank's greatest potential lies in the branch of artificial intelligence known as 'cognitive' AI. This branch is concerned with recreating the human qualities needed to be able to, for example, provide complex advice, such as brainpower, reasoning, calculation, analysis and the ability to learn and process information. These are the kinds of qualities the bank needs to continuously monitor its portfolios and keep track of customer needs. With data flows continuing to increase exponentially, these qualities are more vital than ever. Theoretically, cognitive computers could be used to perform some of these tasks.

'What say you, Watson?'

In IBM, Rabobank has found a worthy partner for its AI capabilities. Big Blue, as the company is nicknamed, developed a supercomputer, Watson, which can interpret and answer questions posed in natural language with great speed. Watson bases its answers on the heaps of knowledge it has accumulated from sources such as encyclopaedias, books, magazines, scientific articles and websites.

When a contingent of Rabobank financial advisers toured the IBM Watson lab recently, they witnessed first-hand just how the machine is being trained to intelligently apply the knowledge it has acquired. They tested whether Watson is already at a stage where it can actually support the bank’s advisors in assisting customers.

'Reading' emotions

Rabobank runs an in-house User Experience (UX) Lab in the Netherlands, which analyses customer experiences, for example how individual customers perceive specific services or communication channels. UX has conducted several tests involving AI. By way of experiment, it introduced an automated chat service for customers to investigate whether they feel there is any added value in conversing with a computer and how they respond to this experience. The findings of the test were positive: customers found the chat system user-friendly and efficient. Many participants drew the line, however, at actually switching on the webcam – required for emotion recognition – at home without the reassurance of a human being present on the other side of the line.

Ethically sound?

But AI also presents the world of science and technology with a number of ethical challenges. The question is whether people want to actually push boundaries or safeguard them. This very dilemma arose when the first generation of smartphones, which so many of us seem unable to live without these days, was launched back in 2007. It is impossible to say just how big of a role AI will play in the future, but it is certain that Rabobank sees potential for eventually exploiting the phenomenon – even if today's customers are not quite ready to sit down and chat with a robot about their finances just yet.