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Banks bet on A.I. for a 'self-driving' banking experience

  • Banks are betting on artificial intelligence (AI) to automate many of the ways customers interact with their money.
  • Customer service and money management are some of the areas AI could impact.
  • There is disagreement about whether this would lead to bank branch closures.

Major banks are betting on artificial intelligence (AI) to act like a digital personal assistant to customers, helping to automate money-making decisions, top CEOs in the sector told CNBC, amid the continued threat from new, more nimble entrants into the market.

"Really people don't like banking , it's boring, it takes time, causes them stress, and people have bad financial habits," Carlos Torres Vila, CEO of Spain's BBVA, told CNBC in an interview at the Money 20/20 conference in Copenhagen earlier this week.

"What we can do is leverage data and AI to provide people with peace of mind, really having an almost magical experience that things in their financial life turn out the way they want it. It's almost like a self-driving bank experience."

BBVA is one of the big banks investing heavily in moves to digitize its operations, as customers come to expect more from mobile apps and the way they interact with lenders.

A NAO humanoid robot, developed by Softbank Corp. subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics SA, performs during a demonstration in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. unveiled the 58-centimeter (23-inch) humanoid to improve services for customers in Japan and become the first bank in the world to use robots at branches, it said.
Kiyoshi Ota | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A NAO humanoid robot, developed by Softbank Corp. subsidiary Aldebaran Robotics SA, performs during a demonstration in Tokyo, Japan, on Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015. Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. unveiled the 58-centimeter (23-inch) humanoid to improve services for customers in Japan and become the first bank in the world to use robots at branches, it said.

AI has been hailed as a technology that can impact a number of areas – from using data to make more informed decisions for customers to having robot assistants that could answer questions.

"AI is a very potent technology that we are applying in many areas. It will also sit in the interface with customers. The funny part is that sometimes you can see that the reliability of an answer of an AI-generated answer to the question of a customer is higher than of the very next person you get on the phone," Wiebe Draijer, CEO of Rabobank, told CNBC earlier this week.

"We see AI as a solution to get more reliable insight, the right answer to the right question at the right time in support of the person sitting in a call center or in the branch. And so AI is extremely potent and we are going to see a revolution in how it's applied already."

According to a survey of 600 bankers by Accenture, 76 percent think that in the next three years, the majority of banking organizations will deploy AI interfaces as their primary point for interacting with customers.

Mass job losses?

But the promise of AI also threatens the existence of bank branches. At the same time, a plethora of challenger banks from the likes of N26 to Monzo which are app-only have appeared, also posing a threat to traditional institutions.

Banks are being attacked on several fronts, and face a potential "Kodak moment" by falling into irrelevance, according to former Barclays CEO Antony Jenkins, who now runs his own financial technology – or fintech – firm 10X.

At the same time, Jenkins who predicted in 2015 that banks could close half of their branches and fire 50 percent of their workforce in 10 years, said this was happening faster than he had expected.

"I mean the trend is moving even faster than I predicted in the U.K., now we're seeing 15 percent of branch traffic falling per annum. That's a huge effect," Jenkins told CNBC in a TV interview at the Money 20/20 conference in Copenhagen earlier this week.

But not all in the industry think that AI means the end of the branch. In fact, AI will enhance the role of the branch and humans.

"This is about really automating all the routine … transactions. And then really spending time with customers on what stuff matters. You know, when you want a mortgage, when you want to plan for your retirement … all that kind of good stuff," Ashok Vaswani, CEO of Barclays U.K., told CNBC earlier this week.