Long considered the stuff of science fiction, virtual assistants powered by artificial intelligence are now a reality. This means the pace at which the world’s biggest financial services companies adopt tools based on AI and machine learning is set to take off.

That was the message FlamingoAI co-founder and chief executive Dr Catriona Wallace had for the 2018 Investment Magazine Investment Operations Conference, held in Sydney on February 20.

Wallace predicts 2018 will be a turning point in the adoption of virtual assistants by mainstream financial services companies, and urges the local superannuation industry to ensure it is not left behind.

FlamingoAI is an ASX-listed company that has developed virtual assistants Maggie and Rosie, which insurance and financial services clients in the US and Australia are deploying.

“Bots and AI are the fastest-growing tech sectors in the world and are expected to grow by five times in the next two years,” Wallace says. “We’re going to see this moving extremely quickly.”

Fourth industrial revolution

She compared AI’s impact on business with the invention of electricity.

“This is the fourth industrial revolution,” Wallace says. “In 2017, companies were looking at the technology and in 2018 they’re investing.”

She pointed to Google Translate, Microsoft IBM Watson, and Facebook’s ability to converse in 40 languages as examples of AI that are in use day to day. Cognitive assistants or machine-learning robots are now used by Ticketmaster for its 24/7 service, airline KLM for its Facebook bookings, and US food giant Taco Bell for orders from its menu.

Unlike webchat systems, which have used software and humans to help customers with their questions for a decade, the next generation of cognitive virtual assistants will learn and respond to customers with less intervention from human operators.

Helped by increased computational power and the advent of big data, which is used to train algorithms, virtual assistants will also give companies real-time insight into customer behaviour and inspire new products and services, Wallace says.

With US$4 billion ($5.2 billion) lost each year to poor customer service, and US$4 trillion in online merchandise left in shopping carts, companies are seeking out AI-powered tools to drive process automation, save costs, boost productivity and drive revenue, she says.

Like a human call centre but better

FlamingoAI’s US client Nationwide, an insurer that generates US$43 billion annually, has used virtual assistant Rosie to sell financial products online more efficiently. Rosie greets customers on the website, guides them through research of a product, gives quotes and helps with applications.

“This is actually what a human call centre would have done but she’s fully automated on her own,” she says. “We’ve seen a 20-30 per cent improvement in call-centre productivity. This could be used to replace human workers but we’re finding much more interest in augmentation – into customer care or cross-selling.”

Recent Australian research showed 75 per cent of Australians are comfortable using a chatbot and 78 per cent thought it improved their customer experience; this is timed well with the upswing in financial services companies trialling and installing AI software.

Wallace says AI will replace some jobs but also bring in new ones, such as robot pre-seeders and trainers, brain auditors to check that a robot’s responses are compliant, and data journalists to output analytics and write reports around the new information.

Valuable data sets

She explains: Ultimately, these machines allow us “to create new data sets and develop machine learning, which is an asset with the business. All of that information comes out of the machine to improve the product process or change the pricing. It’s a real-time assessing mechanism that produces data sets that have never been seen before.”

While FlamingoAI has worked with Fortune 100 companies in the US and large corporations in Australia such as AMP, its plan is to come to market in the next 18 months with an out-of-the-box virtual assistant for smaller insurers and super funds.

“We really look at where the customers experience very poor outcomes,” Wallace explains. “Where a product is complicated and difficult to understand from the customer’s perspective. We’re learning our craft in the large companies…We’d love to make this available to [smaller companies] to improve the customer experience.”

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