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Biotechnology

Japan's financial institutions tapping AI to serve customers

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ's app brings a virtual bank teller to the customer's smartphone screen to answer questions.

TOKYO -- Some of Japan's banks and insurance companies have started using artificial intelligence to handle customers' inquiries more efficiently over the phone and online.

     Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ's smartphone app features MAI, a virtual bank teller, who can respond to customers by understanding the nature of their queries. For instance, if a customer says, "I lost my ATM card," MAI will recognize the situation and tell the customer what to do. The Android version of the app has already been released. The iPhone version is expected to become available by the end of this month.

     The Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group bank also began a service that lets customers contact the bank using the Line online chat app in February. This service utilizes IBM's Watson artificial intelligence platform.

     Mizuho Bank plans to increase the number of branches that use Softbank Group's Pepper humanoid robot for customer service from 10 today to 100 by the end of fiscal 2016. The bank, a part of Mizuho Financial Group, will begin using a combination of Pepper and Watson at two Tokyo branches in May to provide customer support related to lottery sales.

     Insurance company Sompo Japan Nipponkoa Holdings has started using AI to assist personnel at its automobile policy call center. Previously, customer service representatives had to put customers on hold and look up matters relevant to inquiries by consulting manuals and other printed materials. They now see a list of appropriate answers on their computer screen right away because the AI "listens in" on the conversation and automatically searches through a database to come up with potential responses.

     The insurer's call center on average spends 15 to 20 minutes on each customer inquiry. The AI system, which was developed with a domestic telecom company at the cost of several hundred million yen (100 million yen equals $895,000), shaves two to three minutes off that time.

     The system has been used at the auto insurance call center in Tokyo since February. Sompo Japan plans to expand it to centers for fire and accident policies in fiscal 2016 or later. In the future, it aims to develop a completely automated, computer-based call center service.

     Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp. started using AI to help its call center operations in September. Other Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group units, including a brokerage and a credit card company, are considering following suit.

     Financial institutions maintain branches in prime locations at considerable cost to provide convenience to customers. But if AI succeeds in improving the quality of telephone and online customer services sufficiently, fewer customers will likely visit a branch for simple issues, enabling financial institutions to cut operating costs by reducing the number of branches. Such a development may "fundamentally change banks' branch strategies," said Yasuhiro Sato, president of Mizuho Financial Group.

(Nikkei)

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