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AI aims at banking

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Despite the bad reputation some older movies have given AI, a recent survey by Accenture shows that it could well be a big deal in banking, says KELE BOAKGOMO, Managing Director for Financial Services practice at Accenture, South Africa.

Artificial Intelligence gets a bad rap in pop culture. Movies like Terminator (with its rebellious Skynet) and 2001 (with its murderous HAL 9000) portray a future where the robots get smart, and conclude that it is in their interests to try and destroy mankind.

But the truth about AI is a lot more mundane. Most of us use AI every day when we talk and interact with Siri or Google on our phones and AI is why Netflix knows what movies you’ll like and what other products you’ll want to buy on Amazon.

And AI is poised to become a big deal in banking. An Accenture poll of more than 600 bankers reveals that 79 percent believe AI will revolutionize how banks learn from and interact with customers; 76 percent believe that AI interfaces will be the primary point of contact between banks and customers within three years; and 71 percent think AI can be the face of their brand.

AI encompasses three different technologies: Language processing that allows computers to “talk” with humans; machine learning where computers compare new information with existing data to find patterns, similarities and differences; and expert software systems that provide personalised advice. At its best, machines learn from experiences and can interact with humans and behave in ways that mimic the human brain.

Robots and artificial intelligence are already being embraced by banks around the world, both in branches and in back offices. At City Union Bank in the Indian city of Chennai, a robot called Lakshmi tells customers about their account balances and the current interest rates on mortgages. At the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi UFJ, a robot called Nao analyses facial expressions and behavior as it interacts with customers in Japanese, English and Chinese. Lakshmi and Nao are early, visible signs of how banks can use AI to personalize the banking experience.

In South Africa, AI is not new, but the move of AI beyond process to interaction with customers is new. AI is coming of age, tackling problems both big and small by making interactions simple and smart. It is becoming the new user interface in the banking space and underpinning the way we transact and interact with systems. Nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of South African bank respondents in the recent Technology Vision for banking research agree that AI will revolutionise the way they gain information and interact with customers.

Now, banks in the U.S are also starting to catch on. Capital One customers can check their accounts and pay credit card bills by talking to Amazon’s Alexa and HSBC customers can quiz the bank’s virtual online assistant Olivia who can answer questions about security and other issues and learns from the effectiveness of her answers. Santander has voice banking, powered by Nuance’s virtual assistant Nina, which allows customers to make transfers and payments based on voice recognition authentication. And, RBS has developed Luvo – a customer service pop-up window that asks customers online if they need help with simple tasks, freeing staff to work on resolving more complex problems. At Accenture, we’ve built Collette – a virtual mortgage adviser that asks customers questions in a natural conversational style and generates personally-tailored advice.

But these cool services are only the first step. Banks need to start using AI to streamline the process of applying for loans or to reimagine ATM interactions to reflect the customer’s typical needs, giving customer’s a blank screen to start with, for example, rather than a standard menu. In the end, AI will help banks truly customise the banking experience by making personalised recommendations and advice. Your bank’s AI might notice from your deposits that your salary has increased and will suggest ways to save more for retirement, or that you just started purchasing diapers for the first time and maybe it’s time to start a college savings account.

Crunching a trove of customer data – everything from banking to automotive records and credit bureau reports – will give banks a clearer picture than ever before of what their customers might want from a financial institution. That’s important because more than two-thirds (67 percent) of bankers say they currently struggle to understand their customers’ needs.

But as banks move forward, they have to make sure they don’t lose the human touch where it’s needed. AI can delight customers and make their transactions quicker and easier. But it can’t completely replace people. In many situations, from personal interactions to nuanced understanding of someone’s financial status, customers need to work with human beings.

A Weber Shandwick survey reveals that, while more than half of consumers say they would trust AI to provide financial guidance, 52 percent of people are concerned about the possibility of stolen data or invasion of privacy — concerns that banks can address by applying extra levels of security around complex transactions such as transferring money between accounts.

Incorporating AI will make banks more efficient, save them money and will make staff more productive by freeing them up to help customers in a more targeted way. And, as we have noticed from other disruptive technologies, once other banks have embraced these advances they will become a mandatory component of any banking offering to retain customers and gain new ones.

Companies should take three steps to ensure that they get it right with AI: 1) Create a clear strategy for using customer data and define how AI tools can best leverage that information; 2) Consider developing an AI Center of Excellence to spearhead the effort; 3) Create a test-and-learn environment to accelerate innovation and to explore how machines can add the cognitive processes of perception, learning and reasoning.

It’s inevitable that customers will have fewer visits at bank branches, but these few interactions with human staff will become more important to customer satisfaction. That means that the bank of the future will need to blend a mix of AI and human interactions if they want to be successful. What we see around us is just the beginning.

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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