Watson data scientist talks up 'augmented intelligence' for financial services

Watson data scientist talks up 'augmented intelligence' for financial services

True artificial intelligence may still be some years off but the financial services industry is already beginning to reap the benefits of augmented intelligence, says a data scientist working on IBM's Watson.

Speaking at Mobey Day in Toronto, IBM associate partner Pavel Abdur-Rahman moved to cool some of the hype surrounding AI, arguing that it is not going to be seen in a true sense until quantum computing takes off more than a decade down the line.

However, the data scientist was keen to show off the capabilities of Big Blue's cognitive computing platform, Watson, and what this means for the financial services industry.

Abdur-Rahman ran through seven ways in which Watson can help banks, ranging from the simple, such as a chatbot acting as a virtual assistant answering basic customer queries, to the "quite complex", including looking for patterns in unstructured data to find early signals of opportunities and risks for asset managers building portfolios.

Watson caused a stir in 2011 when it beat two human competitors to claim the $1 million prize on the US quiz show Jeopardy. Since then several banks, including Standard Bank, USAA, DBS Bank, ANZ and Royal Bank of Canada have been attempting to take the platform out of the TV studio and into the real world, harnessing its power for a variety of tasks.

One major area that IBM expects the technology to come into its own is compliance. In September the firm revealed plans to buy risk management and regulatory compliance consulting firm Promontory Capital and create a new subsidiary, Watson Financial Services, in which it will use artificial intelligence technology to keep pace with the rapidly changing financial reporting landscape.

IBM says it will combine the expertise of Promontory's 600 staffers with Watson's cognitive computing abilities to directly address the massive operational effort and manual cost of escalating regulation and risk management requirements.

Another area where Watson is seen as a potential gamechanger is wealth management. At Mobey Day, Abdur-Rahman suggested that augmented intelligence has the potential to make wealth management far more efficient but was at pains to note that human input and judgement will still be a vital component of any good service.

He had little time for the dystopian view of intelligent robots putting dumb humans out of business, paraphrasing an academic who argues that we should use robots to make people's jobs less robotic by freeing them of repetitive tasks.

Mobile wallet war stories

Elsewhere at Mobey Day there were some warnings from history for the crowd of mobile money enthusiasts. Speaking on a panel of veterans, Kai Johnson, who worked on the failed US telco JV Softcard and Jeppe Dorff from the similar, and similarly failed, Suretap in Canada, made no secret of their exasperation.

Johnson painted a picture of an organisation that failed to get merchants onboard or customers interested, and which suffered at the hands of its own owners, who undermined themselves from the inside by being unable to stop trying to compete with their partners. Noting that even the mighty Apple has so far failed to make a success of mobile payments, Johnson and Dorff were in agreement that while the technological problems may now have been addressed, the collaboration hurdles have not.

Around the world, mobile network operators are abandoning their payments ambitions, a move that may prove smart if the comments of Scotiabank's Tom Pawelkiewicz are any indication. During a separate panel, Pawelkiewicz confirmed that for all the buzz, his bank couldn't claim to have won over a single new customer with its mobile wallet.

However, providing some comfort to attendees was Kasper Sylvest from Danske Bank, which runs the incredibly successful MobilePay service in Denmark. As others looked on enviously, Sylvest rattled off the numbers: there are 5.5 million people in Denmark, of which four million could use MobilePay and 3.5 million do - for everything from P2P payments to instore transactions to buying virtual stamps for sending old-fashioned letters.

The services is so successful that rival Nordea has finally bowed to the inevitable, giving up on its Swipp alternative - despite only recently buying another failed MNO-backed option to help it fight Danske - and hitching its wagon to MobilePay, an unambiguous mobile wallet success story.

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