Artificial intelligence (AI) is no longer a distant dream; it is fast becoming a reality in many parts of the world across healthcare, retail, transport, investments, and financial services, to name a few. The banking sector today is at the forefront of implementing AI to transform the customer experience, which is saving it an estimated US$1 trillion in annual operating expenses. As a result of this success, banks in the region are setting up departments to leverage new technology that can manage volumes of unstructured data to profile customers, analyze behavior patterns and automate an increasing number of tasks.
AI in the banking sector was seeded through the proliferation of data stemming from digitization, internet, mobile, and more recently digital banking. This has evolved into machine learning, deep learning, data mining, and analytics, which can identify patterns and irregularities to better understand and predict behaviors, prevent anti-money laundering, and better manage fraud, among other things. These technologies are greatly reducing the hours spent on low efficiency tasks, so what would typically take hours to review, can now be completed in a matter of a few seconds. For example, JP Morgan Chase & Co implemented a program called COIN (Contract Intelligence) powered by machine learning to analyze legal documents. The program has helped the bank substantially decrease the number of mistakes in relation to loan-servicing in what was previously a highly manual exercise.
Merely investing in AI technology however brings limited benefits. The key success factor for a bank is how to effectively harness and direct its utilization. This means using the right combination of tools and algorithms to enhance the customer experience and having a strong internal framework of governance embedded into the bank’s own DNA to drive the AI vision. Many banks have begun their AI journey with chatbots or virtual personal assistants that answer customer queries. In fact, chatbots are being hailed as the next big thing because they are not just reducing operating costs, but speeding up service and changing the conversation with customers, while heralding a new era of personalization in the banking industry.
Well-designed chatbots can provide an instant response to customer queries, recall customer preferences and learn and predict customer behavior. They have the added benefit of being available round-the-clock and are able to improvise to provide the correct solution to a problem. Internationally, HSBC Holdings, Standard Chartered, and Hang Seng Bank are some of the leading banks that announced the launch of chatbots to serve customers. According to research conducted by Juniper Research, chatbots will help save global banks more than US$8 billion per year by 2022, as chatbot inquiries save around four minutes per call compared to traditional call centers.
Closer to home in the UAE, Mashreq Bank has introduced its chatbot to initiate an intelligent conversation with users. Customers can use the chatbot to browse Mashreq products and perform card-less transactions, low ticket local transfers and inquire about balance and recent transactions on an account, thus making it much easier to perform banking tasks. What’s more, chatbots are increasingly getting more advanced and banks are able to mine huge amounts of data and provide highly targeted and personalized experiences for customers through advanced machine learning and natural language processing (NLP) capabilities.
Investing in AI is certainly a winning strategy, but banks must have a pragmatic approach for it to be successful in the long term. The UAE is an early adopter of AI and has harnessed the technology to drive growth in many different sectors. For example, the banking sector is increasingly relying on the consumer-facing applications of AI, such as Emirates NBD’s virtual assistant EVA, to enhance offerings. The UAE government believes that combining machine intelligence with human intelligence is helping to build a more stable framework for the future. To fully leverage the power of AI, banks and other financial institutions must look at reskilling their workforce so that employees have the right skillsets and are ready to collaborate with existing AI. This will speed up the shift from a more ‘factory line’ approach to a more fluid approach and enhance creativity and innovation.
Over the next 10 years, AI will transform the experience for the customer through even more customized offerings, and governments and institutions in the region will invest in robust frameworks to strengthen and encourage investments in AI. Regulatory sandboxes are already helping banks pilot new financial technology and applications in a safe environment, which can be beneficial for banks and other financial institutions in the region to experiment with AI and refine products, services, platforms, and business models before launch. Banks in the region have begun their AI journey but progress is still to be made to build the appropriate skills, adopt the right tools, establish appropriate governance and ethical structures, and reform cultures to leverage data and AI as primary engines.