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Bank of America launches AI chatbot Erica — here's what it does

The Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.
Joe Daniel Price | Getty Images
The Bank of America headquarters in Charlotte, N.C.

If you're not great at managing your finances, Bank of America's new chatbot is there to help.

Monday at the Money 20/20 conference, Bank of America's president of retail banking, Thong Nguyen, unveiled an artificially intelligent bot to help customers make smarter decisions.

The new digital assistant "Erica" — a play on the bank's name — will be available inside the bank's mobile app staring next year. Customers can chat with Erica via voice or text message.

With Erica, the company hopes to help consumers create better money habits, said Michelle Moore, Bank of America's head of digital banking. For example, Erica might send someone a predictive text: "Michelle, I found a great opportunity for you to reduce your debt and save you $300."

Click the text to launch the app, and get Erica's advice. "Based on your typical monthly spending, you have an additional $150 you can be putting towards your cash rewards Visa. This can save you up to $300 per year."

Though many banks have bots with some level of artificial intelligence, the customer experience has not always been great, said Daniel Latimore, senior vice president of Celent's banking practice. Consumers are now accustomed to the types of seamless mobile experiences provided by apps like Uber and Airbnb and want better banking experiences, he said.

"The whole notion of customer experience for banks is so, so critical right now," said Latimore. "They have challenges like security and being bulletproof — but consumers don't care about all the constraints. They just know they can get great experiences elsewhere and they want it from their bank too."

Erica will use artificial intelligence, predictive analytics and cognitive messaging to help customers do things like make payments, check balances, save money and pay down debt. She will also direct people to look up their FICO score and check out educational videos and other content.

Through Erica, Bank of America hopes to extend some of the benefits of the one-to-one personal service and advice usually reserved for top-tier customers to the masses, said Moore.

The bank's customers did more than 246 billion payments in the third quarter. Mobile banking customers logged into their accounts more than 950 million times — or 46 times per user — over that same period. With all that data, BofA has a good idea what sort of queries to program into the algorithm behind Erica's brain, said Moore.

Of course, unlike the bank's human employees, she will be available 24/7 to provide guidance and execute transactions.

Artificial intelligence has been creating a lot of buzz so far this year, particularly in the tech sector, with executives from all the major tech companies highlighting its promise. Six percent of U.S. jobs — including some in customer service — will be lost to artificial intelligence within the next five years, Forrester has predicted.

Erica is designed to streamline the banking process, not replace jobs, said Moore. This makes sense, as this type of technology is still very young, and correspondingly limited in what it can do. Over time, Bank of America's programmers will add new features and make Erica "smarter" thanks to the vast amount of data she will handle.

Intelligent assistants have the potential to greatly improve customer experiences in banking, said Forrester analyst Peter Wannemacher. That said, so far banks' bot experiences have been "uneven or poor," he said.

"It is not a foregone conclusion that this will work the way everyone thinks it will," he said. "The big question is whether Bank of America can and will react appropriately to customers use of and engagement with their digital offerings."

On stage, Moore also announced that the bank's customers will be the first in the industry to try out Zelle, a new peer-to-peer money transfer service that will compete with PayPal's Venmo that was announced in August and, starting in 2017, customers will be able to take out or deposit cash at ATMs through their mobile banking app.