Britain’s most hated bank is rolling out a robot teller that shows empathy

Computer says yes?
Computer says yes?
Image: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters
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Just about every service industry—from retailers to restaurants to hotels—has developed some kind of robot to attend to your needs on the cheap.

The latest effort in the banking world (there are already robotic bank receptionists in China and Japan) is to take the rote responses of bots to the next level, by adding a touch of human empathy. The Royal Bank of Scotland (paywall) plans to unveil its new artificial intelligence system, known as “Luvo,” by the end of the year.

The AI service, designed by IBM, will attend to customer banking needs through its mobile or online as a chatbot. It will function similarly to Siri, the iPhone virtual assistant that answers questions with a distinct voice and “personality.” Customers will be able to ask various questions and request services, like replacing a lost bank card or changing a PIN number. Eventually, the bank says, Luvo’s capabilities will surpass Siri’s, by tweaking its tone and replies to convey an understanding of customers’ moods, like frustration or unhappiness.

“As this cognitive system continues to learn over time, Royal Bank of Scotland will be able to expand Luvo’s capabilities to more complex areas such as providing increased personalization and using predictive analytics to detect possible issues before they arise,” the company said in a statement.

It’s a risky play for a bank that has fallen from grace among customers and investors. RBS, the first British bank to launch a customer-facing AI, won the title of most hated among its UK peers in a recent survey. It suffers from a deficit in trust, after enduring a massive write-down of its banking business and setting aside £2 billion ($2.54 billion) to cover potential civil lawsuits over the mortgage-backed securities crisis.

There are other pressures on the bank to cut costs. Tech startups aimed at demystifying and cheapening the process of budgeting, getting a loan, and managing your money have left traditional banks scrambling for ways to prove their value while struggling to slash costs. RBS has cut about 2,700 jobs since March, though it insists the new Luvo system will not lead to further cuts.

“It’s about cost-cutting to an extent. Banks face a huge cost challenge as they go forward, but it can be done in a way that augments customer service,” analyst Warren Mead of KPMG told the FT.

The bank said Luvo would free up staff to attend to more complicated questions. And at the risk of distancing itself from customers, a human teller (paywall) will come to the rescue when Luvo fails to meet the mark.