Hollywood’s Newest Special Effect, Digital Banking?

Who knew King Kong and digital banking had anything in common? The Hollywood magic behind some big-name blockbusters is now powering a series of realistic-looking avatars capable of humanlike, intelligence interactions. For the Tracker’s feature story, PYMNTS’ Karen Webster spoke with Soul Machines’ chief business officer Greg Cross about how the tech is being put to use. Plus, the latest banking trends and a provider directory with over 160 company rankings, in the latest Tracker.

From phone support and mobile apps to ATMs and chatbots — when it comes to customer service, banking automation has come a long way.

However, the one missing piece that these automated banking features lack is a real human being to interact with during a transaction. That’s something that Soul Machines, a New Zealand-based startup, is hoping to change.

The company’s new technological development is intended to bring back the human component to customer service without relying on actual people. To meet this goal, Soul Machines is producing artificial intelligence-powered avatars that are designed to emotionally engage with banking customers.

To get an idea of how AI-powered avatars could change the way consumers interact with their banks, PYMNTS’ Karen Webster recently caught up with Soul Machines’ Chief Business Officer, Greg Cross.

An Oscar-Worthy Banking Solution?

Soul Machines’ technology finds its roots in the works of Dr. Mark Sagar, director of the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland, who has made his career creating emotionally expressive animated programs for Hollywood movies.

Sagar won Academy Awards in 2010 and 2011 in the field of scientific engineering for his accomplishments with facial motion technology.

In Peter Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” Sagar’s expertise in facial animation technology enabled the giant gorilla to express emotions like anger, happiness and sadness. In James Cameron’s “Avatar,” Cross reflected on how the technology helped give an alien race of giant blue creatures known as Pandorans lifelike expressions.

“We all fell in love with those giant blue faces that weren’t humanlike but were capable of very humanlike emotions and expressions,” Cross said.

Giving the Virtual Assistant a Face

Today, the emotionally expressive technology is being used beyond the fantasy worlds of Skull Island and Pandora. In a development arguably worthy of its own big-screen science fiction screenplay, Soul Machines IBM Watson-powered lifelike avatars are able to interpret human emotions and interact in an emotionally appropriate manner.

Soul Machines’ development of emotionally fueled avatars is part of a recent wave that is spurring the development of the self-service software market, which is reportedly anticipated to grow from $4.47 billion in 2016 to $9.59 billion by 2021.

The growth has also caught the interest of companies like Bank of America, Facebook and Samsung, which are investing in building products that use intelligent virtual assistants, interactive text and interactive voice services. But to date, these virtual assistants remain voice- or text-based and do not utilize human avatars for customer interactions.

This is what Soul Machines intends to change. One of the company’s avatars is called Rachel, which is being prototyped by IBM and can add a human touch to its interaction with banking customers by reading their emotions while relaying basic information, such as account balances, or more aggravating account activity, such as overdraft fees.

Another Soul Machines avatar, Nadia, is currently being tested by the Australian government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme to help address the needs of roughly 500,000 disabled citizens. Nadia was designed with input from people with disabilities to more effectively meet their needs. The goal of the experiment is to help citizens who are more likely to struggle with technology interfaces to access the government services and resources they need.

Cross explained that the avatars have the ability to hear users speak through their computer’s microphone and read facial expressions that are transmitted through the webcam. Not only can the program read facial expressions based on emotional signals, but it is also able to understand a human user’s emotions and deliver an appropriate emotional response. Cross sees Nadia’s initial debut as a customer service trainee agent focused on serving disabled citizens as a unique opportunity to put the technology to the test, while simultaneously offering help for Australia’s disabled population.

“What’s really cool about this first use of our technology is it’s making an amazing difference to the lives of people with a wide range of disabilities who have typically been underserved by government agencies that are there to represent them and help them,” Cross said.

Branding the Nadia avatar as a “trainee” helps the agency convey to users that the program is still learning how to interact in an emotionally intelligent manner. Cross said the more individual avatars learn, the more they are able to deliver a personalized user experience, such as what expression to make when a user checks an account balance or gets upset when finding out about an overdraft charges.

“If the avatar knows you’re a happy person, the avatar will smile. If the avatar knows you’re more of a grumpy character, the avatar will start with a more empathetic look on its face,” Cross said.

Brave New Avatar World

Cross sees automation playing a larger role in people’s everyday routines as robotic technologies become more prevalent. But as technology becomes more autonomous — such as self-driving vehicles or developments with smart homes — a need for a human component is all the more important, he said.

“If that’s in our future, we need a new user interface between us and those machines,” Cross said. “The most engaging, the most intimate, the most important interface we have as people is face-to-face communications.”

Beyond the world of banking and social services, Cross says there are an “infinite range of potential use cases” for the avatar technology, such as in the arena of health care — specifically, when it comes to post-operative care. For example, Cross said he sees the potential for avatars to address questions from patients about how and when to take prescription medications and treat surgical wounds. He noted that patients may not remember directions, so having an on-call virtual nurse with a friendly, empathetic expression could both address patient questions and free up hospital personnel.

“These [questions] can be very time-consuming for clinical staff, and people are often embarrassed to ask the same question over and over again,” he said.

Whether it’s health care, banking or social services, virtual avatars could be on the cusp of changing the way people interact with institutions like hospitals and banks — of course, with some Hollywood panache.

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About the Tracker

The PYMNTS Digital Banking Tracker™ brings you the latest news, research and expert commentary from the FinTech and consumer banking space, along with the rankings of over 160 companies serving or powering the digital banking sector.