From digital assistant to virtual BFF

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Girl and robot working in the office

Like many people who were young in 1997, I had a Tamagotchi and it meant the world to me. Whenever it was hungry, I hurried to feed my digital pet. If it beeped about being lonely, I'd go give it attention. My parents thought it was a little silly to be that devoted to a toy, but in this day and age it's almost impossible to imagine life without interaction between man and machine. It’s a trend that’s here to stay.

No matter which way you look at it, Artificial Intelligence can help companies provide customers with even better service. Julia Krauwer Julia Krauwer Artificial Intelligence Expert

It’s not just that each generation of digital companions is more cleverly designed. In the bigger picture Artificial Intelligence is on the rise as well. Designing and creating our new indispensable assistants that will radically transform our life and work.

Artificial Intelligence as a toolkit

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a collection of technologies that imitate human skills and abilities. For instance, computers use image recognition to identify objects and faces in pictures. With natural language processing and speech recognition they can handle our text and spoken word. Add the ability of some machines to reason, predict, and to continue adapting based on new input (machine learning), and you have a toolkit you could use to create something that approaches human intelligence.

Entertaining, but not intelligent

Although my Tamagotchi certainly provided a lot of fun, it lacked those characteristics that define artificial intelligence – or in other words, the capability of combining various cognitive abilities. Such abilities include perception, understanding and producing language, learning, reasoning, and problem-solving. As such, the pixelated pets of the nineties were only primitive and distant ancestors of today's virtual assistants like Apple's Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Amazon's Alexa. Even as a child I knew all too well that the Tamagotchi was a toy and not a friend. It would never understand me, ask questions or offer advice. So the topic of crushes remained one I shared with my girlfriends, and I still went to my parents with all my inquiries related to pocket money.

Virtual sidekicks and emoticons

Today's virtual sidekicks have come a long way, compared to my substitute pet of twenty years ago. Siri stands at the ready to search the whole web for you and even makes the occasional pre-programmed quip. Alexa understands what you're saying and uses a connection with your bank to transfer money as requested. Even your car can be linked to your digital personal assistant by Amazon, allowing you to remotely lock your vehicle and showing you your fuel levels at any time. Then there's Penny, a mobile app with an avatar by the same name which can maintain a natural dialogue about your income and expenses. Nice little detail: Penny uses emoticons just like a real person.

More and more human

As basic or highly advanced as they come, digital assistants are being introduced to many areas of life. Most of them don't pick up on our emotional signals just yet. The MoodBox is an exception; it selects and plays music for you based on the emotion in your voice, and tops it off with sympathetic reactions. Amazon is developing an update for Alexa which will enable it to notice if you sound bothered, and adjust its answers accordingly. Not only are these tools becoming incrementally clever with each update and new generation, they're also turning more and more human in the process. Even artistic creativity doesn't seem to be a human-only trait anymore, now that the first computer-generated tunes, paintings, and novels are being released.

A digital helper for all

We have not yet developed a computer that can simulate all cognitive, emotional, and creative abilities that humans possess. However, artificial intelligence is already seeing interesting applications in various areas of life. In the financial world, we divide them into two types of virtual assistants: those that help bank employees do their work more efficiently, and those that directly interact with clients.

Smarter with each conversation

We've already implemented many features that fit into the latter category. A chatbot on the SwedBank website answers all visitor questions, and challenger bank Atom uses an app with a virtual agent who gets smarter with each conversation. And recently, during Startup Friday, we showcased a prototype of a new chatbot that tells you, after you answer a set of questions, what your maximum mortgage is. These assistants don't always have to come equipped with a face and a personality. Some digital assistants are simply smart apps, such as ABN AMRO's Grip which offers insight into your income and expenses.

From gut feeling to data analysis

The bank employee, too, benefits from the help of digital assistants. Imagine a dashboard for the relationship manager with a one-page overview, listing clients that need advice and their related financial needs. Or a virtual robot that picks up the monotonous and time-consuming tasks. Another application is a fraud detection system that traces subtle changes in transaction patterns. Digital assistants can run risk analyses that eliminate gut feeling, and rely purely on advanced data analysis.

Personal touch in virtual form

No matter which way you look at it, Artificial Intelligence can help companies provide customers with even better service. Directly by means of chatbots and smart apps, or indirectly by empowering employees and freeing up their time and headspace. When it comes to services we've already automated, we provide our clients with a personal touch in virtual form. Other services, with human contact at their core, receive a boost in the amount of time and personal attention we give the client.

Virtual BFF

Human contact and personal attention – I'm proud of how we handle it. Just like how I used to share my day-to-day worries with my girlfriends and family when I was younger, I still maintain that preference for speaking with another person. That human contact will continue playing a pronounced role in dealings between ABN AMRO and its clients. Simultaneously, interaction between man and machine is becoming more and more commonplace. At the bank we keep tabs on these developments so we can continue providing a healthy balance in the future. We're living in an era where people entrust chatbots with their secrets, and answer virtual psychologists' questions until they get to the bottom of things. And although my Tamagotchi simply ended up in a box after its demise, Japanese AIBO dogs are given a respectable funeral.

Will we eventually see today's virtual assistant develop into your future virtual BFF? I’ll ask my Tamagotchi what it thinks. Or my girlfriends...

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