SRI International, the team that built Apple's robotic-voiced Siri, recently unveiled a newer, hotter Web-based secretary who can carry on complex conversations and perform tasks with customers, including opening a bank account.
Lola began testing earlier this month as a feature in the website of BBVA Compass, the North American offshoot of Spanish banking giant Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentina.
The technology was born out of a financial crisis: Much of a bank's costs are funneled into helping answer customers' questions, a time-suck that BBVA reported consumes about 65 per cent of branch staffers' days, according to MIT's Technology Review.
Automated phone menus and other services didn't cut it, so the banking company commissioned Menlo Park-based SRI International to build them a cousin to the popular Siri.
"Customers responded best to interactions that in their view had a 'human' touch," BBVA director of innovation Beatriz Lara told Technology Review, adding that it "provides reassurance and encourages trust."
Users can type questions or speak through a computer microphone to the assistant via a chat window on the site. In response, Lola talks or writes a message, even handling unexpected, out-of-context statements, Technology Review reported.
Lola will help banks save money – by eliminating jobs. While BBVA won't disclose customer service costs, consulting firm Booz & Company estimates [PDF] a typical bank customer service call carries a $4 (£2.60) price tag, a lot more than the 10 cents an online interaction costs.
Lola is rooted in a real BBVA employee, Technology Review said – one whose sales numbers were levels higher than other bankers, and whose name is Lola.
"The goal of the Lola project is to achieve that simplicity and reassurance by integrating human-like interaction into the user experience," William Mark, SRI's vice president of Information and Computing Sciences, said in a statement.
Mark said that "when the system is customer-ready, it will be deployed more widely."
Siri emerged from an SRI International project, and eventually became an independent company that was purchased by Apple in 2010.
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