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How Artificial Intelligence Can Help Banks Beat Back Tech Firms

Watson may change everything.

No, I'm not talking about Sherlock Holmes' loyal sidekick. Watson is an IBM supercomputer that offers financial advice to returning veterans.

Last summer, USAA began using Watson to answer military members' many financial planning questions as they transition back to civilian life. But Watson is not just for the military, nor is it the only robot on the job in the financial services industry. More and more banks are getting cozy with artificial intelligence, using smart supercomputers to sort through gobs of data to answer complex customer service questions in real time and even to help with wealth management.

It's about time that the conservative banking industry caught up with the latest revolutions in technology. Gen Y and younger generations in particular are wedded to digital channels, social media and mobile devices. Many of them take a technology-first approach to their financial relationships and want personalized service tailored to their specific needs.

Genesys, a customer service company that caters to financial services institutions, plans to adapt Watson to its own purposes, using the supercomputer to address customer needs. Goldman Sachs has also gotten on board with artificial intelligence. The company last year led an investment of $15 million in Kensho Technologies, which makes robots that can answer "complex financial questions posed in plain English," according to its website. Then there's Kasisto, which has launched a kind of cousin to Watson: a virtual assistant for banking customers that not only understands natural language but responds to voice commands. And last year, UBS chose Singapore-based Sqreem Technologies to sort through wealth management customer data using AI applications. The apps then organize customer data into customized packages of information to be sent to their mobile phones and other digital devices.

The surge of interest from banks in robots is partly a response to the very real threat posed by Google and Apple, which have recently introduced mobile payment systems. The two Internet giants already have enormous stores of data on their customers, and are very savvy at manipulating that data. It could be easy for them to expand beyond mobile payments and begin offering other kinds of financial transactions and accounts.

Although banks are playing technological catch-up with these companies, AI applications might give them an edge. What's special about Watson and other artificial intelligence supercomputers like it is that it can respond to questions asked in "natural language" — in other words, the way real human beings ask questions — in a diverse set of ways, with tiny differences in wording and nuance. Watson crunches the data banks have on their customers' financial activities and accounts to answer those questions. This is a service that may give banks a leg up over nonbank competitors, since the latter group generally lacks the vast stores of financial data that banks have.

Banks tend to be conservative for a reason: people want financial institutions to project an image of stability and solidity, not faddishness and unpredictability. But they need to take advantage of the rapid-fire changes in technology emerging today. Otherwise, their competitive edge could dissolve as tech companies win the loyalty of the young.

April Rudin is the founder of the Rudin Group, a wealth marketing firm that specializes in high-net-worth and ultra-high-net-worth client acquisition for financial services companies. Follow her on Twitter@TheRudinGroup.

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