Westpac banks on AI advances as automation and cognitive systems mature
One of Westpac’s top tech executives has revealed the challenges the bank is facing as it seeks to adopt a range of artificial intelligence-driven plans, likening the maturity of the technology to that of a talented teenager’s.
The bank’s general manager of technology applications development, Tim Whiteley, said that, while he expected the rapidly evolving technology to change the nature of doing business, there was still years of work to do to train software to work properly.
He said Westpac had several trials under way, with internal initiatives including robotic process automation with some back office tasks and implementing virtual data scientist Hyper Anna. Last year Westpac also said it was testing AI software to gauge the mood of staff.
Customers are also dealing with AI-enabled chatbots based on work with IBM’s Watson in its contact centres and Mr Whiteley said AI would be phased in across the bank steadily over the coming years.
“A couple of years ago, the AI tools ‘out of the box’ were like a teenager, they could read and write, recognise when you’re happy or sad, and pass year 9 maths class,” Mr Whiteley said.
“They have probably now progressed to high school graduates. However, bringing them into our environment, we still have the similar challenge to the teenager in terms of it taking multiple years of further teaching about our business to graduate to a bachelor or PhD level to achieve the outcomes we are after.”
Under chief information officer Dave Curran, Westpac has overhauled the bank’s internal systems in a way that makes it easier for it to track and deal with individual customers, regardless of the technology platform they use to interact with it.
Mr Whiteley described a “dedicated transformation program” under way, focused specifically on where data held both within the bank and externally, can be governed and used to serve customers and optimise running the bank.
“As a part of this, we have built a big data capability linked with our enterprise data stores, which provides the capability to accelerate the use of data and AI within the organisation,” he said.
“And we are working on how we use machine learning to help improve the quality of the data analytics and leverage data better for customer outcomes through creating contextualised customer experiences.”
Much of the general narrative around the advent of AI has focused on the impact of automation on jobs. Mr Whiteley said he believed that the nature of work being conducted by humans would change, and that Westpac had begun working on programs that would reskill its own staff for future jobs.
“There are plenty of new roles in the world of AI, RPA and big data. We will need people with skills to build and maintain the robots, as well as many more data engineers and data scientists,” he said.
“There are also ethical challenges that will emerge, and governance that will evolve, all of which will need careful consideration.”
Australia and New Zealand Banking Group has previously spoken about its attempts to deploy RPA to enhance, rather than replace its existing workforce.
The issue of employment at the banks was thrown into fresh focus on Monday, with National Australia Bank announcing it needs to make 1000 positions redundant every six months as part of a plan to cut a total of 6000 jobs over three years, while at the same time bolstering its workforce with 2000 technology specialists.
Source: AFR 19 February 2018