The commerce platforms that let people bank and pay for things with their voice get more capable every day.
Google Home can now do two tasks at once, such as answer two questions simultaneously or turn on lights in two rooms. Amazon is teaching its Alexa virtual assistant to offer personalized responses when it recognizes a customer's voice.
But the ultimate virtual assistant would be personalized and work on any device, Brett King posited in a recent episode of his "Breaking Banks" podcast.
"I want to be able to call my smart assistant — say he's named Alfred — whether I'm in my car using Siri or at home using Google Home or at the office using Alexa," King said. "I want Alfred to be able to answer me and know me. He should know who I am just based on my voice pattern."
Some bankers have a similar vision.
"We believe longer term that there will be a much higher order of connectivity across devices and forms of interaction," Zach Gibson, the chief innovation officer at USAA, said in an interview.
Gibson said he foresees virtual assistants extending beyond the intelligent speakers and smartphones they run on today to work across not just all devices but essentially everything, including countertops and walls.
A user could interact with the kitchen countertop to find a recipe, get the morning's news, and check a bank balance. Smart appliances and thermostats could also be connected.
"If my home is telling me I can change the thermostat or alter my energy usage, and that means I can save $10 per month, can I then take that $10 per month and use that to pay off my credit card bill or save for retirement or save for my children's education?" Gibson said. "I think consumers will continue to expect and demand ease of use and a level of connectivity that always is two or three steps ahead of where the technology is."
So far USAA has an Alexa Skill powered by Clinc's voice recognition and response system.
U.S. Bank has a similar view of the future. It is developing programs for the primary virtual assistant technologies that exist today, with the eventual hope of providing consistent service across all devices, said Gareth Gaston, its executive vice president of omnichannel.
The bank has an Alexa Skill it launched in September that customers can use to check balances on their checking, savings or credit card accounts; hear payment due dates and the amount due; obtain account transaction history; and make payments to U.S. Bank credit cards.
Bank of America is taking a more cautious approach. In early December it announced an integration with Apple's Siri virtual assistant that allows customers to say, "Hey, Siri, what's my checking balance?"
But for now, the bank is sharing only basic account information on conversational commerce platforms.
"We have to study and understand the security of the data, what's being exchanged where," said Michelle Moore, the head of digital banking at Bank of America.
"To ask basic questions around what's my checking balance, that's innocuous. If you want to get into some very complex transactions, we need you to come back to the mobile app. So integration with Siri, Alexa, Google Home, Facebook — we'd like to let our customers bank where they want to bank but it only can be done if it's done soundly."
Asked if some day, the bank's virtual assistant, erica, will talk to Alexa, Siri, and their ilk, Moore said, "I don't see why not. I do see it as a multiphased journey."
Zor Gorelov, founder and chief executive of Kasisto, has a slightly different vision; he pictures banks offering omnichannel virtual assistants in the future. Using an omnichannel financial assistant, for instance, a customer could ask Alexa for a list of transactions that occurred in November and Alexa might respond with a summary and offer to send transactions to the user's mobile app. Or a customer could inquire about a mortgage application on a mobile device during lunch hour and complete this process with a web-based assistant in the evening while working on a laptop.
"Incidentally, omnichannel virtual assistants — not Facebook Messenger chatbots or Alexa skills — are exactly what we get asked about by the most digitally advanced banks," Gorelov said.
There are at least two big hurdles to the idea of a ubiquitous virtual assistant. One is, the major platform providers (Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.) would need to agree on a standard, work with each other, or work with a third party or abstraction layer to make their platforms interoperable.
Each of the tech biggies is likely to want to own the sole operating system that interacts on any device.
"The question is, at what point is there regulation or control around the platform and the providers, like we've got in telecom and other industries," Gibson said. "I think that's to be determined."
If the tech giants are able to find common ground, it could open up all sorts of new opportunities for consumers. Gibson pointed to the example of If This, Then That, a free web-based service that can be used to create chains of simple conditional statements that can be used to connect actions across different devices.
"You can say, 'If I get this deposit, then move it here,' or 'If my savings goes below a certain amount, turn the lights in my house red,' " Gibson said. "Consumers will expect the devices to be much more connected than they are today and have it all be much easier to use."
Some enterprising vendor could come up with an abstraction layer that communicates with all the different platforms as well as the entities providing data and handling transactions. But security could be an issue. "People will hack into anything on a Wi-Fi network," Gibson said.
For security reasons, USAA limits what customers can do on Amazon Alexa to checking balances and inquiring about spending; they can't execute transactions.
Dave Orban, the managing partner at Network Society Ventures, suggested that the platforms offered by the tech giants could converge the way personal computer operating systems did in the '90s, adopting similar graphical user interfaces so when a user double-clicks on a button, for instance, the consequence is the same.
"It didn't matter if you were on Microsoft Windows or Macintosh. It took a bit of time but the platforms converged because it was to their advantage not to put barriers to the users moving from one to another," Orban said. "Interoperability is important, but it is even more important for developers. The platforms themselves would like to capture the developers and say, no, please only develop for Google Home or Alexa or Siri. But in the long run, that is an untenable position."
Ron Shevlin, director of research at Cornerstone Advisors, predicts that core software providers and other fintech firms will provide that integration capability. "Banks can't maintain separate systems for each device," he said.
Amazon said it's making some effort toward interoperability. In its vision for the future, "there are going to be many successful AIs with access to different sets of data and with different specialized skill areas," said spokeswoman Dawn Brun.
She noted Amazon recently announced that Alexa will be able to talk to Cortana, Microsoft's virtual assistant, which runs on Windows 10 and Windows Phone, and that Cortana will be able to talk to Alexa.
Google and Apple did not respond to interview requests.
The other big integration hurdle is getting financial institutions to agree on or share a platform, so that customers can conduct transactions at different institutions within the one virtual assistant. Gibson said consumers will demand this.
"As a consumer, I have accounts in different places, but ultimately I want to see them all together — how I save money, spend money, how I invest money are all connected regardless of which institution I choose to do that with," he said. "If I'm going to interact with my countertop in my kitchen, I don't care if I have an account at USAA or some other firm, I'm going to want to see them together so I can make the best financial decision."
It's unlikely, though, that any interface will work across all financial institutions unless there is regulatory intervention, said Shevlin.
Here again, an abstraction layer may need to be developed that lets virtual assistants interact with multiple financial institutions.
"This space is ripe for new entrants and players, in addition to more established firms," Gibson said.