Artificial intelligence (AI) is getting attention in 2016, with a spotlight on digital financial services ranging from robo-advisors to broader platforms like Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s assistant app. Although forward-thinking technologists will recognize some of the buzz around AI as part of an industry hype cycle, they’ll track this development carefully given the empirical evidence for the growing potential of AI in financial services.

According to research firm CB Insights, as of June 2016, over 200 AI venture financing deals had been completed, raising nearly $1.5 billion and putting 2016 on track to be a record year. As noted by The Verge, Google’s 2016 I/O conference called out the importance of AI in many of its announcements. Whether it’s true AI or simply more intelligent solutions, there’s certainly a heightened interest in the role of AI in the finance sector.

Some FinTech innovators, such as San Francisco-based Earnest, proudly tout their data-driven approach to decision making, citing its superiority to established credit scoring models and human underwriting processes. Furthermore, Wealthfront’s highly visible CEO, Adam Nash, attracted attention after he posted a blog in early 2016 in which he predicted that AI would transform financial services in the coming decade.

What Counts as Artificial Intelligence?

However, it’s important to note that what passes today for AI in digital financial services isn’t true AI. Wealthfront’s latest platform has mostly out-of-the-box API integrations, with platforms such as Lending Club, rather than a lot of AI-driven features. Many “new” credit decision-making processes, with their reliance on data and models, are more evolutionary than revolutionary. Similarly, using chatbots for customer service is like the driverless car — it has long-term potential, but it’s probably not ready for immediate use, especially for the most demanding customers.

But with or without true AI, technology-enabled tools like Acorns, an Android app that helps young and underbanked consumers save more of their income by using behavioral data and pattern recognition to boost savings, are changing the game. Many millennials may not yet have substantial financial assets (which is why robo-advisors are growing mainly by adding a lot of small accounts), but until they’re able to work with a Registered Investment Advisor (RIA) who looks after their best interests, using their smartphones to access mobile technology such as the financial management service Mint and the Android apps from their banks are a great way for them to get started.

Bringing Diversity to the Workplace

Beyond robo-advisors, what role can AI play in digital financial services? One promising area is in bringing diversity to the workplace. It’s been shown that bankers, like their technology counterparts, are notorious for pattern-matching, or hiring people too much like themselves. As satirized in TV shows like Silicon Valley, the stereotypes associated with bankers and coders are remarkably similar — and this is another area in which AI can help. As reported by Reuters, financial firms like Goldman Sachs and technology companies like Razorfish are looking at AI as a tool to help them focus on traits and behaviors — such as thinking style, personal associations and emotional intelligence — to lead to a more diverse workforce.

Some day, instead of having to wait forever for an available customer server agent to take your call, you may be speaking to an AI-based agent who’s able to answer your questions. But for now, digital financial services may be more about using AI to help improve the roster of people you interact with to build your financial future.

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Michael Halloran

Michael Halloran publishes the FinTech Blog on innovation and trends in financial services firms and startups, and is head of partnerships and business development at Previously, he was with Morgan Stanley, where he managed partner relationships in the wealth management division. He began his career as a consultant at Gemini Consulting, where he helped launch the U.K.'s first online bank. He was also a managing director at Scient (now Razorfish). Follow him on Twitter: @fintechblogger

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