China's first web-only bank hopes A.I. and robots can improve customer service

  • "Automated service is not an enemy to human services. They should work side by side, " says an artificial intelligence expert at Tencent's WeBank.
  • Advances in technology create possibilities for greater efficiencies in traditional bank roles such as processing loan applications, risk analysis and offering personalized service, the bank says.

China's first web-only bank hopes artificial intelligence can improve customer service through the use of virtual robots powered by technologies such as facial recognition, speech recognition and natural language processing.

AI is "there only to improve human services," Yang Qiang, an AI consultant at Tencent's WeBank, told CNBC's Arjun Kharpal at the East Tech West conference in the Nansha district of Guangzhou, China.

"Automated service is not an enemy to human services," he said. "They should work side by side."

In addition, advances in technology create possibilities for greater efficiencies in traditional bank roles such as processing loan applications, risk analysis and offering personalized service, he said.

"Banking, traditionally, was passive in a sense that ... there is an office and people walk in and get services and only the VIP get(s) the best services," Yang said.

Mobile technology has the ability to change that status quo, he said.

"Everybody becomes (a) VIP, everybody has access to all the services in the bank, only through the mobile phone," Yang said. "There is something special about banking on the internet."

WeBank was launched in January 2015 to provide loans to small and micro-sized enterprises (SMEs), a market that was then long underserved by commercial lenders due to higher perceived risk compared to larger companies. The lender is backed by Chinese tech juggernaut Tencent.

Coexistence of humans and artificial intelligence

On the subject of the role of AI in WeBank's operations, Yang discussed its use in risk analysis, an issue which he said was "central" for banks.

Traditionally, he said, risk analysis was done by "human experts," a process that could be "very slow."

"You go and you send in your application, maybe over a week you get a reply," Yang said.

Today, advances in the internet, computer technology and "especially" AI have enabled the creation of models to take on those roles with greater efficiency, Yang said, adding that loan applications can now be obtained "in microseconds."

The uses of AI extend to customer service as well, according to Yang, through the use of virtual robots powered by technologies such as facial recognition, speech recognition and natural language processing.

"Automated service is not an enemy to human services. They should work side by side." -Yang Qiang, AI consultant at WeBank

A common example of how speech recognition works is when smartphone users talk to virtual assistants like Siri or Google Assistant on their devices. The phones pick up and process the audio into text using a series of complex algorithms, then they apply natural language processing to understand what the user meant.

With "about a hundred thousand requests coming in every day," Yang said "almost all of them, 98 percent, were handled by robots."

Customers, he said, have been "very satisfied" with this approach due to the ability of the robots to cater to their needs.

— CNBC's Nyshka Chandran and Saheli Roy Choudhury contributed to this report.