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Why robots could be the death of bank brands

Big businesses and government departments are using AI to learn from our behaviour, better understand our needs and desires, and deliver us offers we can’t resist. Should banks feel threatened for when it starts being used by people to make personal decisions? Maybe, says Vaughn Davis.

Artificial intelligence is a buzzword in business and technology right now. Air New Zealand has trialled answering website queries with a chatbot. Simon Gault has partnered with IBM AI Watson to create previously unknown and possibly disgusting flavour combinations. Even Gareth Morgan is in on the act, reportedly spending most evenings debating a virtual Bill English his son Sam cleverly programmed to run on his PlayStation.

All over the show, big businesses and government departments are using AI to learn from our behaviour, better understand our needs and desires, and deliver us offers we can’t resist.

Should we be worried about that? Maybe. Especially if we subscribe to the “targeting is creepy” school of internet use. The ones who should be worrying most, though, are big businesses. There’s a robot war looming, and banks, airlines, telcos and fuel companies are all in danger of losing.

Picture this: it’s breakfast time a few months from now, and as I’m enjoying my news and free range eggs, my AI assistant – who could be Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home – senses that I’m up and comes to life.

Siri doesn't watch TV or look at ads... all she wants is what's best for me.

“Good morning Vaughn. Hope you slept well.” (Actually, she knows exactly how well I slept thanks to my Fitbit feed, but is just being polite.)

“I was looking at all the banks while you were asleep, and we can save about $2500 a year by moving our mortgage and everyday accounts but leaving the credit cards where they are. Would you like more information or shall I just go ahead and do that?”

It’s a no-brainer, right? To be honest I don’t remember where she moved our mortgage to last time – all I care about is paying the thing off.

“Sure Siri, go ahead and move it thanks.”

By the time the sentence is out of my mouth, one bank has a new customer and another one – if it cares – is wondering why I left.

Siri doesn’t watch TV or look at ads. She doesn’t go to events and get charmed by PR crews giving out bank-branded knick-knacks. She just wants what’s best for me, so by comparing publicly available information makes a recommendation, assesses the upside, and manages the switch.

This scenario isn’t so far-fetched. Right now, the only missing link is Siri having my power of attorney to move my account. That will come. Today, my car can tell me where the nearest gas station is if I run low. It doesn’t care whether it’s Z or Caltex. Soon, it’ll be able to calculate and tell me whether it’s worth driving past one to go to the other.

When that happens, brand won’t matter. Ads won’t matter. Because robots don’t care.

The great news about the robot war is that the little guy or girl is going to have the advantage. An airline, or a bank, or a supermarket needs to think big to turn their enormous, complicated, secure legacy system into a nimble intelligent machine. That takes time, and costs money. I just have to buy a $100 box from Amazon (or use Siri on my phone) then wait for the built-in software or a new app to give me the power I need to make fast, ruthless choices between commodity providers.

As an advertising guy, this makes me wonder about my future. As a customer, though, that future can’t come soon enough.

An edited version of this story was first printed in the Sunday Star Times, courtesy of Fairfax Media.