Robot Banking: Just Because We Can?

January 6, 2017

United States

Bob Allexon

Glory Global


I recently read an article published by The Financial Brand entitled “Will Robots Replace Tellers In Bank Branches?”  I did so with great interest as in-branch technology that improves operational efficiency and the customer experience is central to our business.  Is this where banking is headed?  Removing the human element altogether from the branch experience is certainly possible, but is it plausible?  Today it seems that technology enables possibilities that seemed beyond comprehension only a few years ago.  However, care must be taken to apply technology to banking in such a way as to add real value for the bank or for its customer, and not just ‘because we can.

Early Robot ‘Adopters’

According to The Financial Brand, about a dozen or so financial institutions globally have experimented with artificially-intelligent humanoid robots in their branches. These devices roam the facility and interact with customers in multiple languages, give product presentations, and direct clients to the correct ‘human’ contacts for problem resolution.  Some can handle non-cash transactions and others have “emotion engines” that enable some capability to sense the customer’s emotional state (happy, angry or sad) using both verbal and non-verbal cues.

One such robot is named “Pepper.”  Pepper is 48” tall and weighs-in at 60 lbs.  It operates for about 12 hours on a battery charge.  Pepper rents for slightly over $10,000 per year on a two-year agreement.  A smaller, smarter, more costly version named Nao is also available.  At only 23” tall, this robot can also store and recall customer and product information.i Remarkable!  For the complete picture, you can reference the full article from The Financial Brand here.

Technology Run Amuck

While it is clear that today’s state-of-the-art assumes the robot still has access to human resources within the branch, is there more capability ahead?  These robots function today mainly as greeters, helpers, or possibly as a concierge.   But what does the future hold?  Will we ever evolve to the point where robots actually replace tellers or all the humans in the branch?

A needed word of caution is appropriate here.  There are certainly many examples of where applied technology that completely or even partially removes the human element has run afoul of initial positive intentions.

There is lots of talk lately about driver-assist or replacement technology in the automotive industry.  Such technologies enable cars to drive themselves or at least offer automatic emergency breaking or blind spot warnings.  These are all nice features on the surface, but there are inherent risks with total reliance on these technologies.  Software ‘glitches’ with technology devices are fairly commonplace.  That could have been the case in Florida earlier this year when a Tesla operating in self-driving mode reportedly failed to brake and was involved in a fatal crash.

As far as these things go, anything like watching TV, surfing the web, or texting that results in enormous distraction while operating a motor vehicle is indeed risky business in my view.   If human intervention is required in any emergency situation, will the occupant of the vehicle be attentive enough to react?

In a hypothetical example, it is certainly possible today to create a commercial airliner that totally flies itself.  We could remove the pilot, co-pilot and, taking it further, transition the flight attendants’ service totally to self-service using cashless vending technology.  Why not do it?  We certainly have the technology.  Thousands in airline payroll costs could be saved.  However, if we actually did this, how receptive would folks be to flying this way, especially in the case where a competitor was still offering air travel fully staffed the traditional way?

As the saying goes, “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should!”

Risk or Reward?

Getting back to the aforementioned article, the author also raises a couple of key concerns with robot banking.  The first deals with relationship building.  “If customers are coming to branches to get that ‘human touch,’ does it make sense to have an artificial being greeting them at the door?  And are the robots available today — even those with ‘emotion engines’ — really capable of creating and cultivating relationships with people?”ii

The second and potentially more troublesome challenge is the whole issue of why the customer came to the branch in the first place along with the concept of a positive branch experience.  As the article states, “Consumers are often frustrated by technology, and already feel that banks treat them like ‘a number.’  Think about it: automated voice response systems and complex phone trees are maddening. The problems customers encounter in these other digital — and less personal — channels are probably a big reason that they drove to the branch in the first place. You could argue that the last thing a customer irritated by tech issues wants to see is more tech.” iii

I very much agree with these observations and the risks around offending clients or missing a true opportunity to build a relationship with those that visit your branch.  There is also possible risk inherent in any case where an iteration of a lobby robot (like Nao mentioned in the article) actually handles or stores confidential customer information.  How is that information safeguarded in a highly portable 23” tall robot?

I have nothing against robots.  In fact, I suspect that interacting with a robot in a bank could be fun, at least for the younger crowd.  Dating myself, robots were focal to the plot in two classic 1950s movies.  Robbie the Robot was featured originally in “The Forbidden Planet,” and Gort was featured in my personal favorite, “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”

In the latter case, the robot Gort was programmed to destroy the forces on earth that proved to be violent and unable to live peacefully with one another.  Gort later in the movie actually embarked on that course after the earthlings killed his alien companion Klaatu.  It was not until Gort received the command to stand down later, delivered by Klaatu’s human friend, Helen Benson (played by actress Patricia Neal).  The command was, “Klaatu, barada nikto!”  I have absolutely no idea why I have remembered that for all these years, but ultimately the command was delivered and Gort did, indeed, stand down.  Maybe it will be useful to remember that same command if, or when, Robot Banking becomes a ‘just because we can,’ over-the-top initiative. 

Robert Allexon is an Independent Business Analyst and Consultant. His career spans five decades in technology-based durable goods sales and marketing and he is an expert in cash automation.

i Will Robots Replace Tellers In Bank Branches, The Financial Brand, Jeffry Pilcher, October 25, 2016.
ii Ibid.
iii Ibid.


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