Banks

This bank is staffing branches with humanoid robots that dance, take selfies and push credit cards

Hugh Son
Key Points
  • HSBC executives are posting seven of the robots, created by SoftBank Robotics, in the lobby of their Fifth Avenue branch.
  • In one demonstration, after pitching a credit card and summoning a human colleague to help close the deal, Pepper the robot danced hypnotically to a techno beat. The robot also poses for selfies and tells jokes.
  • If the machines help improve users' experiences, the bank will roll them out to more of its 228 U.S. branches.
HSBC Bank welcomes SoftBank Robotics' humanoid robot, Pepper, to their team at the Fifth Ave branch on Monday, June 25, 2018 in New York. 
Mark Von Holden | AP Images for HSBC

Ground zero for the robot takeover of financial services is an HSBC branch in midtown Manhattan.

Here, crowds of camera phone-toting tourists cooed and clapped at Pepper, an adorable 4-foot-tall robot with a high-pitched voice and a tablet screen strapped to its chest, during a recent test run. HSBC executives are posting seven of the machines, created by SoftBank Robotics, in the lobby of their Fifth Avenue branch starting Tuesday to interact with customers and signal that the London-based bank is serious about technology.

“How may I help you?” Pepper asks in a cheerful voice, urging onlookers to select among a half-dozen options, including tutorials on self-service channels like mobile banking and ATMs.

In one demonstration, after pitching a credit card and summoning a human colleague to help close the deal, Pepper helped a user kill time by dancing hypnotically to a techno beat. The robot also poses for selfies and tells jokes.

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After decades of portrayals in science fiction, robots are beginning to appear in everyday settings, doing menial tasks from vacuuming homes to flipping burgers. In finance, big banks including J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America have focused on software rather than physical robots, pouring billions of dollars into artificial intelligence and machine learning to speed transactions, resolve complaints and improve service. HSBC is the first to employ humanoid robots in a U.S. bank branch.

"This is going to drive more people into the door,” said Pablo Sanchez, HSBC’s head of retail banking and wealth management for North America. “But once they’re in, it has to go beyond the gimmick. If it’s just people taking selfies, in two weeks that’ll be over. So we wanted to make sure it could do some really valuable things for our customers, educate them on our product set, be able to point them in the right direction.”

The bank, which worked with Softbank for six months to train Pepper, is tracking customers’ wait times and how well the robots are helping to sell more products and services, Sanchez said. If the machines help improve users’ experiences, the bank will roll them out to more of its 228 U.S. branches. Locations in California including Cupertino and Silicon Valley are next in line to get the robots.

The bank plans to gradually increase Pepper’s capabilities, allowing users to complete product applications on its tablet, and eventually introduce other improvements to its branches. HSBC spent $131 million on the robots and other upgrades, including voice identification and new digital banking apps.

The advances come amid rising anxiety about disruption that increasingly sophisticated technology including artificial intelligence, poses to workers. Automation could wipe out a third of U.S. jobs by 2030, with the greatest impact on jobs involving repetitive tasks, according to the McKinsey Global Institute.

For HSBC, staffing bank branches with machines that never take vacations or ask for a raise is not to save money but rather to drum up more business, particularly among technology-loving millennials, Sanchez said.

“Do I think we’re going to replace all our people with Peppers?” Sanchez asked. “Absolutely not. It’s very much a way to grow the business and bring more humans to the party, not less.”

Others criticized HSBC’s approach as misguided in a time when most banking happens via mobile phones, not in branches. When a customer does enter a branch, it’s to speak to a person, said Neil Kinson, chief of staff at Redwood Software, a Netherlands-based firm that automates back-office operations for companies.

“They shouldn’t be putting robots on the floor,” Kinson said. “They should be eliminating the jobs that noncustomer-facing people do and then moving those people onto the shop floor.”

Sanchez pushed back on the idea that his efforts to inject fun into a staid industry were frivolous.

“In just the few tests we’ve done, this thing has almost already paid for itself,” Sanchez said. “We’ve had a customer come in last week and open up multiple accounts for significant dollars with us because Pepper was out there.”