No branches, no chequebooks, only smartphones. The future of banking? Except it’s already here. Digibank, a retail banking service by Singapore’s DBS Bank, does all of this, and more. It offers a savings account with a 7% interest and an unmetered debit card. The account can be activated from any of the 500-plus Cafe Coffee Day outlets across India. What sets it apart from other attempts at integrating digital platforms is the use of artificial intelligence-powered chatbots as virtual assistants. To execute the project, DBS roped in Kasisto, a New York-based firm that shares antecedents with the makers of Apple’s Siri. In an e-mail interview, Zor Gorelov, co-founder and CEO of Kasisto, and Olivier Crespin, group head of digital bank, DBS, talk about digital banking and their India experience. Edited excerpts:

How long did it take to develop the virtual assistant for Digibank? How many people worked on it?
We had to localise our artificial intelligence platform—Kasisto artificial intelligence or KAI—for the Indian market to understand currency, dates, and product names. The virtual assistant powered by KAI had to be trained to answer over 10,000 questions, from customer on-boarding to user education to customer service. The bots have been designed to seamlessly hand over customers to live chat agents whenever needed. We were able to deploy the app within a few months. DBS was able to use KAI for Digibank quickly because it is designed to handle dozens of different banking transactions and thousands of questions.
Though the team is lean, the members are well-versed with AI, which includes expertise in natural language understanding and machine learning.

How has the ride been so far with Kasisto? Can this experience be leveraged across DBS’s other markets?
The virtual assistant has been well-received in India. The more customers engage with it, the better it becomes. DBS intends to use KAI for its Digibank offerings in other locations as well. For instance, it is currently training in Bahasa [the official language of Indonesia] to support the upcoming release there.

Olivier Crespin, group head of digital bank, DBS Bank.
Olivier Crespin, group head of digital bank, DBS Bank.

The virtual assistant can answer nearly 10,000 questions and every new query is a learning addition. How has the repository swelled since the April launch?
The breadth and depth of questions answered by the virtual assistant is growing constantly. KAI improves performance with a set of sophisticated machine learning tools aimed at managing business analytics, annotations, customisation, and content. This combination of machine learning and precision keeps the user experience intelligent and up to date, so that the virtual assistant and bots can fulfil requests, solve problems, and predict customer requirements.

Are other banks and financial institutions interested in this technology?
After the launch of Digibank, many banks from India, as well as Asia, and other regions have approached us.

Will the chatbot reduce dependency on call centres for banking customer services?
Banks are embracing chatbots to offset their dependence on call centres. But what we are most excited about is how banks are looking at branded bots to enable lifestyle banking even outside banking apps by weaving financial decisions on other messaging apps. There are 2.5 billion unique users of messaging apps worldwide, where people spend the bulk of their digital lives.
In many Asian countries, embedded chatbots on messaging platforms already power news, search, and e-commerce. It’s important to provide customers with intelligent conversations powered by virtual assistants or smart bots wherever they are—whether it is through the bank’s mobile app or a messaging platform.

Online banking is picking up in India, but security concerns and a lack of knowledge are an impediment. What has been the learning from banks in mature markets?
: Our customers and investors span the globe. On both mobile and messaging, KAI is compliant with banking norms and is secure. We even customise security measures to meet the regulations of the markets we operate in. The platform delivers authentication and authorisation mechanisms, anonymised token integration, and has 24/7 monitoring built in. Our encrypted backend communication ensures that customers’ private information is protected and regulations are met.
For example, in the U.S., we introduced our banking bot, MyKAI, in June. Consumer adoption has been terrific and people are connecting their bank accounts to manage their money via Facebook Messenger, Slack, and SMS.

Is digital banking just about customer experience, while the current system focusses on making banking cost-efficient [for banks] and time-efficient [for customers]?
Even though DBS’s digital platforms have received worldwide recognition, it is still a journey. All banks will have to travel this road because customers are increasingly expecting financial services and products to be seamlessly integrated into their digital world.

Being digital is much more than just putting a shade of digital lipstick onto a brick-and-mortar bank. It means making digital thinking part of your DNA. Services and products will have to be built from the ground up and will have to be digital-ready. The model has to be scalable and infused with customer analytics. It will have to be delivered wherever, whenever, and however the customer needs it. If it is anything less than this, banks will not be able to compete on cost, or on customer engagement and uptake.