September 2, 2020
Winning the War

I’m a big fan of science fiction. It helps us envision and explore what’s possible.

Some writers’ works prove to be particularly prescient, in fact. Neal Stephenson predicted cryptocurrency in his 2002 novel, Cryptonomicon. And I’ve read more novels about pandemics than I care to admit, but Chuck Wendig’s Wanderers, released about a year ago, hit a little too close to home in its focus on a bat-originated pandemic.

Myriad novels, movies and other works have wrangled with the rise and implications of artificial intelligence, depicting it in a number of ways, from Star Wars’ heroic R2-D2 to the menacing Skynet in The Terminator and the malfunctioning HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But the AI adopted by forward-looking financial institutions today isn’t nearly as intelligent or threatening. You can’t even see it, because it operates in the background. This AI is being used to improve the customer experience and create efficiencies — the two most important goals identified in Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey — but many banks haven’t yet made the leap.
My recent conversations with bank executives reveal AI’s enormous potential. Bill Sennholz, CEO of Forward Bank in Marshfield, Wisconsin, told me his bank automated consumer loan decisions, growing that portion of the portfolio by 200%.

Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida deployed an AI chatbot in the early days of the pandemic, relieving call center staff at the Stuart, Florida-based bank. This improved service for customers, who could take care of simple transactions via the bot but call in to address complex matters.

The word “robot” recently turned 100. The term originated in a 1920 play, R.U.R., written by Czech writer Karel Čapek. It’s based on a Slavic word roughly translating to “drudgery.”

The bankers I spoke with made clear to me that they don’t approach AI and automation as a way to replace staff. Rather, they want to move employees away from tedious, repetitive work — from drudgery — so they can focus on achieving the bank’s goals.

And at least today, a little AI may go a long way.

“In the age of the chip, the box and internet retail, being just fractionally better than the rest means you’ve not only won the battle,” Dutch historian and author Rutger Bregman points out in Utopia for Realists.

“You’ve won the war.”

Emily McCormick, vice president of research
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Digital banking has officially upended branches in the Covid-19 pandemic, leading banks to rethink their technological priorities.

“[The pandemic] accelerates the evolution that the industry has undergone for years. Nearly all respondents — 97% — say their bank has seen increased adoption and use of digital channels due to Covid-19.” 

Emily McCormick, vice president of research