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Analysis

How Voice Recognition Technology Is Changing the Way We Bank

As the world’s tech giants battle over the rapidly emerging home assistant market, related developments in voice recognition and AI transform our financials

Evan F.P.
April 20 2018

Consumers are getting used to asking Artificial Intelligence (AI)-based voice assistants like Alexa, Siri and Cortana to perform basic tasks such as playing a certain song, sending a calendar reminder, or searching the web. But financial transactions? Those have fallen outside their scope — until recently.

With conversational interfaces like chatbots and home assistants entering the mainstream, some banks are exploring how they can use the technology to their advantage. Exponential leaps forward in voice and AI technology are upending modern standards the same way mobile did 10 years ago. As customer expectations increase, financial institutions are funding internal initiatives and pursuing third-party partnerships that will allow them to deliver a new caliber of service on-par with those provided by today’s most innovative tech brands.

Biometric Security Goes Mainstream

One of the main reasons consumers have been reluctant to embrace voice assistants is for the perceived lack of security. And they are certainly justified in thinking the convenience of voice banking will come at the cost of digital security. But financial firms are looking to experts in the field of biometrics for a solution. The rising demand has led vendors to address some long-standing concerns about the tech’s alleged limitations in hopes of breaking into the mainstream consumer market.

Traditionally, voice authentication products have required frequent training to remain accurate. If users went too long without engaging with a given product, it was possible for age-related changes in vocal signatures to accumulate, making it difficult for users to be identified. In a 2017 presentation at the RSA security conference in San Francisco, principal researcher Elie Houry of Pindrop, shared findings that concluded it could take as little as two years for a user’s voice to change significantly enough that voice recognition technologies would no longer recognize them.

With unprecedented opportunity on the horizon, voice tech vendors have been quick to address these concerns. Brett Beranek of Nuance shared the results of his own study, in which he used celebrity vocal samples to test his own platform’s ability to cope with changes in vocal signatures over time. “I enrolled 40 seconds of his voice from an interview Mr. Schwarzenegger delivered in 2015…  I then ran a voice biometric check on three seconds of Mr. Schwarzenegger’s voice from the movie Pumping Iron from 1977… Despite a 38-year difference between these two recordings, the voice biometric engine had no trouble recognizing that this was the same person, at banking-grade security settings.” Whether these or other tests will be enough to convince customers that voice biometrics have a place in consumer banking remains to be seen.

Replacing Online Portals

Mobile banking set a new standard for customer convenience when it first came to prominence in 2012. Developments in AI and voice technology are surpassing those standards, and experts expect they’ll have a profound impact on how customers manage their money. A study by banking publication The Financial Brand found that day-to-day banking tasks were the reason behind 85% of web traffic to all major banking sites. Most common among them was a simple balance check, taking less than 3 minutes and requiring as few as 2-page views per session. AI-powered personal assistants are poised to change that.

Mark Ryan, Chief Analytics Officer at Fintech design firm Extractable, speculates that, “In the next 5 to 10 years, we will most likely see web traffic to banking sites and mobile applications drop by over 50%… As voice recognition and voice authentication mature, banks will be able to offer customers the ability to perform their most common banking tasks such as checking balances by simply talking to an Internet-connected device.” Ryan points out that this could disrupt the way banks market new services to their customers. With less traffic passing through their primary web portals, banks will need to bolster other marketing channels like in-app notifications to compensate for the loss of traffic to existing upsell funnels.

Branded Virtual Assistants

As platform-owned personal assistants like Siri and Cortana gradually gain traction, some financial firms are bringing branded voice recognition tech into existing mobile products. Ally Bank customers can find answers to their banking questions using an in-app personal assistant known as “Ally Assist.” The AI-powered service allows users to transfer money, pay bills, and collect information relevant to their accounts. More recent versions of the voice-controlled tech even allow customers to research banking products and open new accounts.

“Consumers are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to mobile banking,” said President & CEO of Ally Bank, Diane Morris, during a television interview spotlighting the bank’s digital-first approach. “They’re looking for simplicity, convenience, and functionality… Being able to anticipate their needs and offer personalized digital services is completely consistent with our goal of being straightforward and providing an obviously better banking experience to help consumers manage their hard-earned money.”

As impressive as they are, branded AI agents like Ally Assist will still end up competing with self-contained home assistants when it comes to consumer banking engagement. Considering the value some customers are already getting out of products like Alexa and Google Home, it’s likely to be an uphill battle.

As these and other market shifts continue to develop, banks have taken an unprecedentedly proactive attitude towards product innovation. Unlike the mobile revolution that caught many by surprise, financial institutions are demonstrating an appreciation and respect for the disruptive potential technology has over their industry. Customers can expect their day-to-day banking experience to benefit as a result.

It won’t be long before they’re asking, “Alexa, how much money is in my checking account?”

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Evan F.P.

Evan is a writer, educator and tech marketer. As content director at Fluid PR Group, he helps businesses tell their stories to the world. He lives in Toronto with his wife, their son and an occasionally well-behaved Australian Shepherd named Islay. Follow Evan on Twitter

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