Clinc’s A.I. Lets USAA Members Casually Chat with Their Bank Accounts

Ever wanted to casually talk to your bank account and find out how much money you have in checking, or what your restaurant spending looked like a year ago? If you’re a member of USAA, the financial institution serving members of the U.S. military, and have an Amazon Alexa device, now you can.

Clinc, the University of Michigan artificial intelligence spin out, this week announced that its technology is available to the public for the first time as part of a 90-day pilot program. Using the USAA Alexa skill (a voice-driven function) that has been built with Clinc’s technology, the financial institution’s millions of members can perform common banking tasks, ask questions related to account balances and spending patterns, and receive fast, personalized responses—even if they use slang or other informal language when asking.

Jason Mars, Clinc’s co-founder and CEO, says his company’s technology differs from other A.I.-powered chatbots because it’s not bound by rules or commands. Instead, it relies on deep neural networks, natural language processing, and machine learning to emulate human intelligence. Mars calls Clinc’s system “the financial industry’s only truly conversational, non-chatbot A.I.”

How conversational? Mars says you can speak fairly colloquially. For example, you could say, “How much money did I drop on dinner last month compared to July 2016?” or “What’s my money situation looking like these days?”

“You can say complicated things, you can use slang conversationally, and it works,” he explains. “Most other chatbots would break because they’re rule-based and rely on commands. We use a completely different approach than anything else on the market.”

A child doesn’t need to know the rules of grammar to learn language, Mars points out, and Clinc’s system learns to carry on a conversation in much the same way humans do. “Our model triggers neural pathways, and then extracts the relevant insights,” he says.

Mars and his co-founder, Lingjia Tang, share a background in A.I. and systems research. That’s a competitive advantage, he says, because there are new artificial intelligence discoveries that have been made in the academic world that so far haven’t been commercialized.

“That’s the basis of our technology, and that’s why we can deliver an experience that is way different than our competitors,” he says.

USAA had been using one of those conventional, rule-based chatbots since 2013, but it wasn’t very effective, Mars says. “So we tried plugging our brain into Alexa,” Mars says. “[The user’s] voice goes to our A.I. and Alexa is the speaker, but it’s using our brain to think.”

Clinc has also had success integrating its “brain” into a number of channels in addition to Alexa, including Google Home and Facebook Messenger. Now that the company has demonstrated what’s possible with its technology, other financial institutions are “knocking our door down,” Mars says, “because we’ve shown what we can do.”

Clinc has been working with a handful of other major banks, and Mars expects to have more product deployment announcements soon. The pilot project is “only the beginning” of its collaboration with USAA, he adds.

Calling USAA “visionary,” Mars feels the next generation of banking customers will expect tools like the one Clinc offers. “This technology is critical for banks to embrace,” he says. “It means better engagement and a better user experience.”

Mars is optimistic about his company’s future. Now with 35 employees, Clinc recently opened a second small office in San Francisco to help accelerate its growth.

“There are other players offering these kinds of chatbot solutions—Nuance is probably our biggest competitor—but we have something unlike anything else,” he says.

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