Machines eat money, then learn to talk about it

July 22, 2018 | GET MORE : Innovation

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From ATMs to Alexa, a brief look at innovation in automated banking.

In the summer of 1981, in rural Clinton, Tennessee, Vickie Wright spent her days under a red, white and blue umbrella in a bank parking lot, trying to convince customers to step outside of their comfort zone and try a fancy new piece of technology called the Automated Teller Machine (ATM).  

“They weren’t quite sure what to make of it at first,” recalls Wright, today an assistant product manager with U.S. Bank subsidiary Elavon.  “Especially the older ones. They typically kept walking into the branch.”

A few months later, in suburban Chicago, I was born, and would come of age in a world where ATMs were mainstream. Yet 35 years later, here we are on the innovation team at U.S. Bank once again introducing our customers to new way of banking. Her name is Alexa.

Wright’s story struck a personal chord with me. The summer she spent helping customers get comfortable with a new technology is precisely the work we continue to do today. And the same challenge: people are cautious about interacting with a machine versus a human.

In the early 1980s, ATMs were intimidating.  We were asking customers to physically insert their hard-earned cash into a machine, in the parking lot. Until that time, banks had been large, imposing buildings, typically with marble columns and 26,000-pound steel vault in the basement. They exuded trust and security. An ATM looked like a Ms. Pac-Man Machine (which also ironically, appeared to eat your money on occasion).

Although Alexa isn’t likely to eat cash any time soon, the same hesitations exist. How does Alexa know my balance? What else can ‘she’ do with my money? (Learn about voice banking security at U.S. Bank.)

Still, it’s oddly compelling to wonder if a child born today will grow up in a world where conversational computing is ubiquitous, and what new forms of technology will be waiting in the wings behind it.  

“That was 37 years ago,” says Wright.  “As I think back on how much technology has changed since then, [I realize] I actually had a part in the start of something new.” 

Dave Marrese is a product manager on the innovation team at U.S. Bank.