Financial institutions are at the forefront of voice biometrics, applying the technology to virtual assistants, voice recognition software and increased security. 

The future of banking technology could hinge on something that is not difficult to find: the voice. Developments in the field of voice technology mean that such capabilities will no longer be in the domain of science-fiction and could be commonplace in banking in the next few years.

Apple iPhone users have been using Siri, an assistant that receives spoken commands, since 2011. Although it may have been received by consumers as a novelty rather than something that can be used seriously, it marks a wider trend of voice-controlled devices. Whether it is speaking to a satellite navigation system in a car – instead of fiddling with a screen while driving – or speaking commands to wearables such as Google Glass, voice recognition is also expected to become more pervasive in a number of banking channels. Rather than typing and swiping through numerous pages of a mobile banking app, for example, the voice can be used to navigate through the options much faster.

On top of speech recognition that understands instructions, the use of voice biometrics is also being increasingly used to authenticate users. Al Pascual, director of fraud and security at Javelin Strategy & Research, says one reason there is a lot of excitement in the banking industry about these technologies is because “you could realise significant return on investment with these solutions across multiple channels”. In the past, the business case was not so proven. Also, he adds: “Mobile banking has exploded, which has made voice authentication technology much more viable.” 

Imitating humans

Voice technology has become more accurate and also more human-like. Robert Weideman, executive vice-president and general manager, enterprise division, at Nuance Communications, says: “The software has got a lot more intelligent and much more human-like. If you are going to engage with customers in an automated way, you want that capability to be human-like in its interactions.” 

Nuance has developed speech-recognition and voice-biometrics solutions that a number of banks are using. For example, US Bank has been using Nina, Nuance’s virtual assistant that responds to spoken instructions. In February 2014 the bank announced that it was piloting voice biometrics so that customers could access their credit card accounts by speaking the passphrase “my voice is my password”.

In September 2014, ING in the Netherlands introduced voice control to its mobile banking app using an assistant the bank named Inge. Customers can speak to Inge and ask her what their account balance is, for example. Other functions for the mobile app will be introduced in a phased approach, with the Dutch bank saying in a statement: “ING thinks it is important to introduce Inge gradually and to learn from customer experience.”

Dan Miller, senior analyst and founder of Opus Research, says that voice technology fits with banks’ multi-channel strategies. As well as using voice biometrics to prevent fraud, the technology also improves customer service. For example, when customers phone their bank, it takes less time for the customer to finish whatever they are trying to do.

Russia’s Tinkoff Credit Systems (TCS Bank) – in a project that won The Banker’s Technology Projects of the Year award for customer service – estimated that it was able to authenticate customers to its call centres in seven seconds, a reduction of 40 seconds on average per call. The bank used Nice System’s passive enrolment technology that enables customers’ voices to be authenticated against a voiceprint that has been created from historic recordings of calls to the call centres.

Trust in technology

At Barclays Wealth, which uses Nuance’s voice biometrics solution, a video on its website explains to customers how it is using voice biometrics and that customers are required to make a short phone call to capture their voiceprint.

While this may seem inconvenient and unnecessary, Mr Pascual points out that it has the dual purpose of giving customers a sense of security and also “satisfies the need of regulators [in various jurisdictions] that they are educating customers about how their biometric data is being used”, he says. He adds, however, that privacy is a concern in the use of this technology, saying: “When people do not understand things, they are less inclined to trust [the technology].” 

Mr Miller points out that banks have been more cautious in their roll outs compared with other industries and have chosen certain segments first. For example, Barclays has started with its high-net-worth customers before rolling out its voice authentication to all customers.

Mr Miller points to a study by Opus Research, which shows financial institutions are in the top tier alongside telecommunications companies in terms of the most advanced use of voice biometrics. In the next tier down from banks are the healthcare, insurance and e-government industries. “Financial services companies have been among the first to trial and implement [the technology],” says Mr Miller, adding that they are just a little behind the telecoms industry on a global basis.

Voice technology can also be used alongside other forms of biometrics to enhance security. Tangerine, which is now owned by Scotiabank and was formerly known as ING Direct Canada, in October 2014 introduced voice banking as well as TouchID authentication – the iPhone fingerprint reader – to its mobile banking app. The bank has plans to introduce voice authentication later this year. “Voice authentication will allow clients the ability to use their voice as their password as an added layer of security when logging into our mobile app. We believe this is a very important first step toward simplifying the log-in process and eliminating the need for cumbersome passwords at some point in the future,” says Charaka Kithulegoda, chief information officer of Tangerine.

The idea of biometrics is not new and banks have been experimenting with this kind of technology for years. Mr Kithulegoda explains that back in 2000 the bank piloted a biometric mouse where a fingerprint could be used to access an online bank account. At the time it was too cumbersome. “Fourteen years later we have the ability to revisit this technology as we now have smartphones as a platform to support biometric technology in an easy and simple way, whether it’s by scanning a fingerprint or recognising a voice,” he says.

Intelligent systems

There has been a lot of attention on voice and speech recognition, but Mr Weideman at Nuance Communications notes that what is important is the “brain” that sits behind such technology. “What is really important is to have an intelligent system that can understand what a customer is asking for, and can ask questions to clarify the request,” he says. “It is really the ‘brain’ that understands, holds a conversation with you.” Also, it is important for customers to be able to do that across a number of banking channels, as Mr Weideman explains that people might want to do that via text message, on the phone or using a wearable device.

The advantage of using the voice, notes Mr Pascual at Javelin, is that “anyone can use it without training”, which is important when dealing with a wide customer base. Pat Carroll, founder and executive chairman of technology company ValidSoft, echoes this, saying: “Everyone has access to a phone of some sort. Voice is the lowest common denominator across channels,” compared with a fingerprint reader, for example.

Mr Carroll expects voice technology to be more pervasive in the future. At call centres, for example, customers can be authenticated without giving any security credentials away and their voiceprint can be checked against a blacklist of fraudsters’ voices.

Internet of things

Pointing to a wider trend, Mr Carroll explains how the voice will become more crucial in the internet of things, whereby everyday objects will have network connectivity. As more devices become connected to the internet, it is likely that they will no longer be controlled via screens or a control panel, but rather a voice. A person can walk into the room and say “turn on the lights” or “turn on the heating” in a ubiquitous computing environment where there are no longer interfaces to such technology. Mr Carroll believes that it is not just voice recognition that is important, however. “Security will have to be pervasive in that environment and biometrics is absolutely essential to support these voice components,” he says.

Looking to the future, Mr Pascual says: “Voice [technology] will be pretty ubiquitous within 10 years,” adding that voice authentication will become more powerful as the voice can be authenticated alongside authenticating the mobile device or phone line that the customer is calling from.

With a combination of speech recognition, voice biometrics and an intelligent artificial brain, voice technology will no longer be the stuff of science-fiction, but rather an everyday banking experience.


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