Robot banker: Pepper lands gig at HSBC, starting in Beverly Hills

Public-facing corporations that want to appear innovative are turning to gimmicky robot assistants.
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

Let's say you're a stodgy financial institution that wants to appear innovative and technologically fresh, but you don't particularly want to develop any new technology or upend the way your business works. What do you do? 

Hire a robot!

That's just what HSBC is doing with a larger rollout of Pepper, the humanoid robot from SoftBank that by this point has an impressive retail resume. The rollout just kicked off in Beverly Hills, where Pepper will greet customers and answer questions to "provide a memorable banking experience," according to a company release.

If you're thinking a robot greeter is gimmicky ... well, you're right. It's the ploy of a brand trying to buy some techno chutzpah, the same instinct that motivates airports at cities with a large technology sector to bring on robot porters.

Pepper, a social robot, picks up on verbal and body language cues to act in contextually appropriate ways. It's an impressive bit of human miming, a premonition of more refined socially aware robots to come. But the use case here is baldly quaint. The robot is supposed to ask questions and guide customers to the right banker. It can talk about products and services and offer instructions and tutorials for those products and services, sort of like an abbreviated version of HSBC's website, albeit one that can talk back in a quippy way. 

"While Los Angeles is the undisputed entertainment capital of the world, we feel it's about time the banking customer experience be just as fun and engaging," said Jeremy Balkin, Head of Innovation for HSBC.

Translation: It's all about marketing, adding a dash of automation pizzaz to the same old trip to the bank. There's nothing wrong with that, except that it's becoming an agonizing trope: Companies falling all over themselves touting automation without really introducing meaningful automation. 

SoftBank, whose robot has been used in all sorts of customer service environments in much the same way, is doing a lot of meaningful robotics development, but the lack of a compelling use case for Pepper, a use case that actually saves people time or companies money, suggests there's just not an economic justification for social robots at their current stage of development beyond a certain cache or wow factor a brand gets from having a robot in one of its stores.

This is all best summed up, perhaps, in HSBC's social media push around Pepper.

Pepper is all about making the retail banking experience fun and enjoyable for customers. HSBC launched a campaign to visit Pepper and #PoseWithPepper for a selfie. Customers and visitors are encouraged to upload their photos to their favorite social media channels using the hashtags #PepperatBH, #MeetPepper and #PoseWithPepper. 

One day robots really will will be taking jobs held by humans at banks and lots of other places. But if you work at HSBC today, don't sweat it too much.

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