Indian financial services company HDFC Bank has just announced plans to deploy 20 humanoid robots at its branches – the latest move by a financial institution to invent the bank branch of tomorrow.

Will the next financial advisor be an android?

We're getting preety much used to chatbots that reply to Frequently Asked Questions online, we have seen the advent of robo-advisors to manage assets, and artificial intelligence tools are being deployed to help combat fraud. Now it seems that humanoid robots are about to make their appearance at bank branches.

HDFC Bank has unveiled plans to deploy 20 humanoid robots at its branches. Though not very well known in Europe or the United States, this Mumbai, India-based financial services company, with its 4,555 local branches serving some 37 million customers across the sub-continent, is the country’s number two private sector lender. The 20-robot project therefore represents a relatively small deployment but will be a ‘first’ in the banking sector if the plans work out. HDFC management have chosen a robot designed and manufactured in India by local startup Asimov Robotics and Sayabot Systems, its subsidiary which specialises in service robots. Of similar design to Pepper by Softbank Robotics, the Indian robot – whose name is IRA, standing for Intelligent Robotic Assistant – was unknown right until the official announcement of this first contract.

IRA from Asimov Robotics, a humanoid robot of Indian design about to be deployed by HDFC Bank

Asimov Robotics has set out to secure a place for itself in sectors ranging from the medical field to the hotel business, retailing, banking, security services and personal assistants. Nitin Chug, Head of Digital Banking at HDFC Bank, is confident that IRA will be able to carry out transactions on behalf of customers, but the launch video indicates that ‘her’ role will for the moment be confined to guiding customers to the right counter. This should be a fairly straightforward task as the customer will be able to select, on the service robot’s touchscreen, the service s/he is looking for at the branch. Nevertheless, Nitin Chug is promising facial recognition of customers and voice dialogue in Phase2 of the project. IRA will by then also be able to provide account statements and take cheques that customers wish to deposit.

The idea of putting humanoid robots to work at a bank branch is not entirely new - especially in India. And in order to win over the customers at HDFC Bank branches, IRA will need to overcome some of the limitations shown by existing industrial robots in banking industry, since all the previous tests in the sector haven't been successful.

IRA is for the moment just able to guide customers at a branch as far as their financial advisor’s office. Later on, the robot is expected to be able to carry out basic banking transactions.

Mizuho shows the way

Another Indian institution for instance, City Union Bank (CUB), made a similar announcement late last year. A little Nao robot made by Softbank Robotics, named 'CUB Lakshmi', after the Indian goddess of fortune and prosperity, for the occasion, began to work at the T Nagar branch in Chennai city centre. CUB expressed high hopes for the robot: it was initially to be programmed to answer up to 120 questions, covering 95% of all generic queries from a typical branch customer. The plan was that CUB Lakshmi would subsequently be integrated with banking systems so as to enable her to carry out transactions, thus reducing the workload of 3 to 4 people. Following the launch however, reality seems to have hit home and the planned deployment of 25 extra Nao robots has not yet taken place.  

Meanwhile however, the benchmark for Indian banks to emulate is Mizuho. The Japanese bank put its first Pepper robot to work back in July 2015 and today the French-designed humanoid robot can be seen at a dozen branches across Japan. Pepper is equipped with ‘collective experience’ applications designed to create atmosphere at branches, plus personal applications to keep customers occupied while waiting, including questionnaires. However, Mizuho is also planning to use its robots to deliver real banking services to customers. For this purpose, the Japanese bank has entered into a partnership with IBM Watson and is also working with a number of FinTech startups: Mizuho has created a co-innovation space, called the Mizuho.hack, to enable startups to develop new applications for its Pepper robots.

Japanese bank Mizuho is the first bank to have really deployed robots on the reception at branches

Going back even further, in 2012 Brazilian bank Bradesco unveiled Bradesco Next, a concept store whose design anticipated the branch of the future. The concept branch was equipped with multiple large-format touchscreens, ATMs with biometric ID, and also a nice little robot whose role was mainly... decorative. Five years after this demonstration, the jury is still out on the question of whether it is really useful to deploy reception or service robots at bank branches. Muriel Blanc Duret, Head of Retail Space Design Consulting at Korus, stresses that it is vital to ask yourself what job you want the robot to do at the branch before thinking about testing out these new-style advisors. She underlines: "You need to ask yourself in advance what is the sense of doing this. What service is the robot going to provide that a human employee cannot provide? Coping with peak periods at a branch can be a real organisational headache and robots might one day provide the right solution at reception to guide and direct customers around the branch in places where footfall is very high indeed, as is perhaps the case in India. But this type of rush is becoming much less common in France."

Taking care not to flout the values espoused by the bank

This expert in bank branch design argues that the effects of introducing a robot just to liven up the atmosphere, what has been dubbed ‘retailtainment’, will not last very long and that the customers will soon tire of it. "Any move to introduce a robot must first and foremost be in line with the values to which the bank lays claim. What is perfectly feasible for a mainly digital bank may not be appropriate for a cooperative bank or a bank that champions the importance of human relationships,” underlines Ms Blanc Duret. Another obstacle to the introduction of robots at bank branches in France or other European countries is the weight of national culture. Explains Ms Blanc Duret: "Something that works well in Japan, or perhaps in India, cannot necessarily be transferred to France. Our relationship with robots is very different. It’s a question of culture, and also a matter of reconciling opposing expectations from the customers moving around at the branch. Do you want to place the emphasis on efficiency, by automating the branch with ATMs and robots and basically delegating tasks to the customer, or would the bank rather try to maintain human relations, keep up a friendly atmosphere?” 

While Korus has not yet received any requests from French banks to accommodate robots in the design of a branch, Muriel Blanc Duret has herself put forward a proposal to deploy not robots on reception but remote robot assistants to set up video-appointments with advisors. She points out: "With this approach, the robot would go and fetch the customer from reception to the meeting area, set up the video meeting and then afterwards take the customer back to reception. This is the type of service that maintains the human side of the relationship because you’re not having a conversation with a software programme but with a real person, with all the non-verbal communication that is absolutely indispensable to this type of relationship.”  

So, it is clear that, now that banks are all embarking on a digital transition and having to re-think the role played by the bricks-and-mortar branch in relation to the new digital channels, the place of robots at branches still remains to be decided.  

By Alain Clapaud
Independent journalist specialising in the new technologies