Since the beginning of the year, BRD – Groupe Societe Generale has been developing a chatbot based on Personetics technology, which will operate via Facebook. We talked to Horia Velicu, head of the bank’s innovation lab, about the chatbot’s functions, as well as the advantages and challenges this type of AI brings.

During Business Review’s Country Focus Community Forum in mid-June, BRD – Groupe Societe Generale CEO Francois Bloch announced the lender’s five-year plan to invest tens of millions of euros in digitalization and automation of processes. Soon, BRD clients will be the first among those of the French banking giant to benefit from financial guidance via a text conversation with an AI. “In Romania, Facebook usage rate is very high, so for us it made sense to start it,” Velicu explained. To this end, BRD partnered with Personetics, a company that provides customer interaction technology solutions for the financial services industry from its offices in London, New York and Tel Aviv. “They are specialized in finance chatbots and use a financial ontology to grasp the language and product information in a conversation. This differentiates them from the general purpose chatbots like Siri or from other general commercial chatbot developers,” Velicu said.

The pilot project, independently developed and implemented by Societe Generale’s Romanian banking unit, is designed to offer a full-fledged financial tool. “What started as a simple bot that could only answer a couple of questions about investment in equity funds, turned into a more complex application that can assist customers in selecting and subscribing to investment funds, transferring money between funds, bill payment or withdrawing money from their accounts,” Velicu told Business Review. The end purpose, Velicu explained, is for the chatbot to become an alternative to the classical menu-based mobile banking application and ultimately support all functionalities offered by MyBRD Mobile.

The main advantage of implementing this type of tool, Velicu argued, is the ability to offer personalized assistance to customers at any time, something they have come to expect. “We live in a world where we can do almost everything at almost any time. We must be able to provide assistance over any digital channel, 24/7,” Velicu acknowledged.

Among the challenges encountered while developing the tool, Velicu singled out the  linguistic aspect. “Until now, chatbots have been developed mainly using English, while for the Romanian language, there is not much annotated data for the machines to learn from” he explained, adding that the bot’s personality is also important.

As for whether Romanians will come to trust a chatbot with their money, Velicu is optimistic, while acknowledging there are some variables. “It all depends on the complexity of the task a chatbot would have to perform and the client’s affinity with technology. While it may take some time, I’m sure that they’ll come to trust it,” the head of BRD’s innovation lab said.

In Velicu’s view, the introduction of the chatbot does not amount to a complete change in the status quo. “There will still be some areas where human interaction will be preferred, such as double-checking certain information or complex situations where human assistance is required. The chatbots will be complementary to traditional services, not a substitute,” he added.

According to Velicu, conversational data will be used to identify BRD clients’ areas of interest, as well as contribute to machine learning. The data “allows the bot to learn to better address the needs of the client and even become proactive and ask the client if he or she needs a particular service, at a particular time.”

The project is attracting attention at group level and is likely to be replicated in other territories, Velicu believes. “I have seen a large interest in the Societe Generale group regarding our chatbot experiment and yes, most probably, there will be other countries interested in implementing their own.” However, its design, the platform and implementation will depend to a large extent on the local culture, Velicu explains.

As for other initiatives, the Bucharest innovation lab is also working to develop a blockchain system.