Singapore bank sets up unit to drive in-house AI development

OCBC Bank will kickstart the new unit with a S$10 million investment over three years, with the aim to embed artificial intelligence technologies into its products and services.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

OCBC Bank has set up a new unit dedicated to developing and integrating artificial intelligence (AI) capabilities into its products and services.

The Singapore bank said it was investing an initial amount of S$10 million (US$7.6 million) over three years to support a pioneer team of three data scientists, which headcount was targeted to double within a year. These specialists would be tasked to push the adoption of AI across the company's services, including loans financing and wealth advisory.

"The goal is to deliver greater value to customers by giving them access to banking services through natural user interfaces that are seamless and convenient, as well as targeted and tailored products and services that are contextually relevant, driven by machine learning," OCBC said in a statement Wednesday.

Dubbed AI Lab@TOV, the AI unit would be parked under the bank's fintech and innovation group and would provide a testbed for new AI technologies before these were integrated into OCBC's existing systems. It added that such pilots also would tap the bank's data sandbox and APIs (application programming interfaces) so they could run, using real-world anonymised customer data within a secured environment.

Head of the new AI unit, Ken Wong, said: "We are able to experiment for the first time with deep learning neural networks and graphics processing units, which are heavily used in the gaming industry and hardly used in banking. This is an exciting new space to be in, especially for banking, and we welcome talent who have the passion to develop something new and fresh for the industry."

OCBC's head of e-business, business transformation, and fintech and innovation group, Pranav Seth, said the bank already had been tapping AI over the past couple of years to monitor transactions and power chatbots.

He added that such technologies now were "integral to digital banking" and would prove a "massive competitive advantage" for first-movers in the market.

According to OCBC, its AI unit currently was focused on natural language and speech processing technologies, and working on research and technology from Singapore's Agency for Science, Technology and Research to develop AI systems that could accurately decipher local accents, including Singapore's.

If successfully deployed, the technology could be leveraged to create chatbots capable of responding to customers using voice messaging, allowing them to digitally fill in bank documents via phone conversations with the bank's agents.

AI Lab@TOV also was working with Amazon Web Services' deep-learning video camera, DeepLens, as part of efforts to provide a more personalised customer experience via OCBC's facial recognition technology. This then could be rolled out at the bank's branches and ATMs. The Singapore bank last month began using NEC's facial recognition system to identify its "Premier Banking" customers at its Holland Village branch.

OCBC in February 2018 also turned on voice-based commands for iPhone users, allowing them to check their bank accounts or make e-payments via Apple's virtual assistant Siri. The platform was developed in-house and a similar voice-command service was introduced, last October, to corporate banking customers.

In addition, OCBC had signed a partnership agreement with local telco StarHub to tap data insights from each other's clientele and jointly develop products and services they said would offer more customised customer experience.

The collaboration encompassed a year-long S$6 million (US$4.39 million) investment in research and product development, and would include joint marketing initiatives and setting up of stores to showcase their services.

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