How Can Chatbots Be the Future If They Are Stuck in the 1960s?

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Several years ago, I had a conversation with a client who did not like what I had to say about mobile banking. Clients don't always agree with our analysis, so the conversation would not have been especially remarkable, except that this client asked to speak with another analyst about the topic.

When I told my male colleague about the conversation, he said, "Well, I'll tell him the same thing."

"I know," I replied. "But you have a British accent and he will believe you."

And the client did believe him.

Voices, names, accents — they all influence who we listen to and who we ignore.

Banking has always been a male-dominated industry where men's voices are heard the most. It hasn't been uncommon for someone to assume a woman is in an assistant role when, in fact, she is the expert in the room. And now the sexism of yesteryears is bleeding into the frontier of bank innovation: artificial intelligence, or AI.

Recently, Bank of America announced yet another virtual banking assistant with a female name: Erica. Erica joins Cleo, Penny and Nina (developed by Nuance and used by Swedbank, USAA and others) — all examples of bank chatbots and fintech financial assistants with women's names. If this trend continues, traditional stereotypes of women and men will carry on in a digital era.

Of course, virtual assistants aren't the first "things" companies have given female names. Hurricanes and ships have traditionally been given female names, though that started to change in the U.S. in the late 1970s.

And sure, banking bots, like Kasisto's Kai and RBS' work-in-progress Luvo, sometimes have androgynous names. In fact, some bots are even getting male names. For example, Goldman Sachs is working on "Marcus." But here is a troubling difference. Marcus, for instance, will use bot technology to give advice on loans whereas the other consumer-oriented chatbots are more geared at providing customer services, like spitting out bank balances and bank hours. Marcus joins other fintechs, like Oscar, with male names. Some names are not explicitly male, but still connote a double meaning, such as the company Earnest.

I don't believe that these financial services bots and other bots have been given female or male names out of malice. However, the fact that it is happening reflects the assumptions that many of us have about voices, accents and authority. These stereotypical chatbots will affect banks from two perspectives.

One: employee diversity. Chatbots that reinforce traditional stereotypes covertly tell your employees that women can forget about senior management in treasury or cash management — those are "male" roles. In other words, it implies that women are better at service rather than at the business of banking.

Two: customers. Stereotypically named chatbots send a subtle but clear message to customers about how banks view women — who make up at least 50% of their target market.

Ultimately, chatbots that reinforce traditional stereotypes are just another example of banks making assumptions about what their customers want. Instead of picking a gender, banks should let their customers call the shots. Surely at this stage of digitization, customers ought to be able to customize their chatbot's name or voice-activated device. This issue, after all, goes beyond the traditional male or female choices. What about transgender?

If the Waze app can let users pick the voice they want to hear giving them directions — Samantha or Tom? — why can't B of A give its customers a choice between Erica and Eric? Particularly for those banks seeking to project a hip, millennial attitude, can they afford to offer apps that only have one possible name, ethnicity and gender?

Let the customer create her own chatbot — give it a name and voice that suits her. If your bank is truly interested in diversifying your workforce and appealing to everyone, then diversify your chatbots.

Me? I'd name my chatbot "Whatever I Say" because it may be the only time during the day that someone or something will do just that.

Stessa Cohen is research director at Gartner. She can be reached on Twitter @stessacohen.

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