Its name is Chip. It stands 1.7m tall, weighs 100kg and can speak nine languages. It makes jokes, gives compliments, shakes hands, helps people find places and tracks and recognises faces.
It will even give you a hug. And it’s coming to a bank branch or shopping centre near you.
Commonwealth Bank has just struck a landmark two-year agreement with shopping centre owner Stockland and the leading social robotics research lab in Australia at the University of Technology Sydney to jointly run a range of robotics experiments where Chip will be the centrepiece. For both companies, Chip could provide the key to transforming the way they do business by unlocking the seemingly unlimited opportunities of artificial intelligence to cut costs and build new revenue streams.
“We think artificial intelligence is evolving to a different space, to self-learning and an inferential type of intelligence. If you couple that with mechanical ability, it can create some quite interesting solutions to different problems,’’ says CBA’s group executive, institutional bank & markets, Kelly Bayer Rosmarin.
“With a robot like Chip we can really start performing that experimentation, understanding and engaging with the academic community and our customers like Stockland, which also has particular cause for interaction with their customers in shopping centres or retirement living.’’
Chip, a so-called REEM robot from Spanish robotics company PAL Robotics — one of only three in the world and the only one in the southern hemisphere — cost CBA $300,000 when it was shipped to Australia six weeks ago to take pride of place in the bank’s Sydney innovation lab.
Its arrival here was a year in the planning.
The REEM robot is currently used predominantly by universities in Barcelona, France and Germany for research in human robot interaction and navigation of environments.
But in Australia it is envisaged it could eventually enter the real world of hotels, museums, trade shows, shopping malls, aged care villages, airports and hospitals.
“We are still determining a whole array of different use cases that we think are quite interesting,’’ says Stockland’s group executive, strategy, Simon Shakesheff.
The partnership with CBA, which has been sanctioned by the Stockland executive team, is part of the group’s “Ideas at Stockland’’ innovation program, which also does work with other companies, including Telstra.
“We have 11,000 retirement living residents, for example. In the very long term there might be a use case for robotics as companions or helpers for aged people,’’ Shakesheff says, noting that the concept of companion and helper robots for aged people is not a new idea, especially in Japan, where “they are doing a lot of work on that and what it means for their ageing population and the structure of their society”.
Global technology giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft might be in an AI arms race, buying start-ups and setting up laboratories to develop machines to do tasks that once only people could do.
But the trend is now spilling into the wider corporate world, especially in the financial services sector. A recent report from investment bank Citi claimed the banking sector was at the “automation tipping point” with financial technology.
The firm predicted 30 per cent of branch staff would lose their jobs over the next decade, “mainly from retail banking automation”.
“In a branch-heavy retail bank around 65 per cent of banks’ staff are doing processing work that could be automated in the long term,’’ the broker said.
Bayer Rosmarin prefers not to dwell on the negative employment implications of employing robots like Chip, but she doesn’t shy away from the reality of what artificial intelligence means for the business.
“Part of this is also about demystifying, because there is a lot of scaremongering when it comes to robots — whether that is about violence or job displacement. The reality is that technological advances have added to economic growth and created jobs over time. And we believe that will be the case here. Instead of being scared of that, we want to be involved in the debate, rather than ignoring it,’’ she says. Westpac is planning to trial artificial intelligence in its digital banking systems over the coming months to allow simple questions about people’s finances to be answered by a machine instead of a person.
The bank’s general manager of consumer digital, Travis Tyler, has previously revealed the bank was looking at using “bots” to respond to customers with simple questions when doing banking on their smartphones.
Offshore in India, The Philippines and China, ANZ has been toying with Robotic Process Automation to do routine tasks previously conducted by humans.
The bank claims it is not about cutting jobs but rather allowing it to refocus its human workers on new areas.
But the numbers are crystal clear.
AT Kearney claims on average a software robot costs one-third as much as an offshore employee and one-fifth as much as onshore staff.
Professor Mary-Anne Williams, director of the Innovation and Enterprise Research Laboratory (the so-called Magic Lab) at UTS, says Japan remains the global leaders in the field of social robotics, followed by the US, where there are a number of start-ups in the space.
Last year Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ employed a customer service humanoid robot at its flagship Tokyo outlet. Standing 58cm tall and weighing 5.4kg, the robot — named Nao — was developed by French company Aldebaran Robotics, a subsidiary of Japanese telecom and technology giant SoftBank Corp.
It speaks Japanese, Chinese and English.
Then in late July this year Meiji Yasuda Life Insurance Co announced it would be deploying 100 so-called “Pepper’’ robots across 80 branches in Japan by 2017, to help out on the sales floor by accompanying employees and explaining insurance products and services to customers.
Ms Williams says the CBA-Stockland-UTS alliance “offers an extraordinary opportunity for our students to engage with industry”.
About eight people from UTS’s Magic Lab are currently working from CBA’s Sydney Innovation Lab around 2-3 days per week.
“This is really important from a national perspective because this is a technology we need to understand better: not just the technology itself, but how it affects us,’’ she says. Separately, CBA has a partnership with the Australian Technology Network, providing ATN students across Australia industry with experience in robotics and helping to strengthen STEM capability within Australia’s education institutions.
There are five universities from the ATN involved in the project: Queensland University of Technology, University of Technology Sydney, RMIT, Curtin University and the University of South Australia.
Each University has one PhD student leading a team of four final year undergraduate or masters students on identifying an area of opportunity for CBA or Stockland and developing capability for Chip related to that area.
CBA is funding students’ travel to fly to Sydney and spend time in CBA’s Innovation Lab to meet Chip and take part in a program induction with the Magic Lab, Stockland and CBA.
From there the students work to deploy their code on to Chip’s platform and will present their work at the end of the year.
Kelly Bayer Rosmarin says the first application being considered by CBA and Stockland is a concierge-like functionality for Chip in a bank branch or shopping centre.
Chip provides information and services through a 12 inch touchscreen on its torso. It can also carry as much as 30kg on its back platform and 1kg in each hand, plus it has an eight-hour battery life, one of the longest for a humanoid robot of its size.
“There are already tasks that people do (in a branch) in an unassisted way. But sometimes they need an extra dose of confidence that guides them through. We do in our branches today try and help people on how to use NetBank and the new intelligent deposit machines. And a robot like Chip could be very useful to not use human time in doing that — to help people give people that dose of confidence as they go through self-service experiences for the first time,’’ Bayer Rosmarin says.
“Maybe Chip could be used for identity and security things. We also think there might be some head office uses — he could give tours of the innovation labs that we have very highly paid people doing at the moment.’’
She also sees broader applications in shopping centres. Through using a wide set of in-built sensors, Chip can also make a map and navigate autonomously in large indoor environments, avoiding obstacles to find the shortest path to a destinations.
“Because Chip is so good at facial recognition, we thought we could create a very interesting use case around being able to isolate a lost child and return them to their parents in a shopping centre,’’ she says.
“Part of what we want to do is engage our teams and customers to come up with good ideas around use cases. We want our broad staff and customer base to come up with those use cases.’’
The work with Chip comes at a challenging time for Bayer Rosmarin’s institutional banking division, where earnings fell 9 per cent to $1.16 billion in the year to June 30, hit by weak lending margins, higher expenses and a 51 per cent spike in bad debt charges to $252m.
The result prompted Morgan Stanley analyst Richard Wiles to question the level of returns from a division making $1.1bn of profit from $180bn of assets.
So will Chip become an unwanted distraction or, even worse, simply a gimmick?
“I think there are very few people who think the development of AI is not going to happen. People who think that at are maybe naive about what is happening,’’ she replies, stressing the work with Chip has been sanctioned by CBA CEO Ian Narev, who is genuinely excited by its prospects.
“While Chip might be an interesting form for us to conduct the experimentation, I don’t think anyone would see AI as fly-by-night or a gimmick. Look at the financial markets for example — a lot are being traded with AI. So it is core for us and our customers,’’ she says.
“It is not a ridiculous, out-of-size investment. I think it is very proportionate. As the largest company in Australia, can we afford to ignore this really important trend and pretend it is not happening?’’