U.S. Bank rolls out voice activated online banking in baby steps, teaming with Amazon.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Christy Sanhthyam, a Mobile Banking Project Owner with U.S. Bank, demonstrates how a customer can now use Amazon's voice recognition software Alexa to access bank account details.

U.S. Bank last Monday launched its Alexa app.

People with Amazon's voice-recognition software Alexa on a device, such as the cylindrical speaker-listener devices Amazon Echo, Dot and Tap, and some Kindles, can now use voice commands to interact with their US Bank accounts.

"If I'm doing dishes, I can ask Alexa when is my credit card due, and without getting my hands out of the water I can pay my credit card," Dave Marrese told the Business Tribune. Minneapolis-based Marrese is a Product Manager with US Bank's Innovation Team. He helped shepherd the skill, as Amazon calls the Alexa apps, from concept to execution, via teams in Boston and Portland.

They held a demo in the condo of U.S. Bank employee Christy Sanhtytham. At first, there were long pauses where Alexa appeared to be deep in thought, and then she said the account had not been set up.

"Welcome to the U.S. Bank Skill. You need to link your account. For more information say 'Help'."

So Sanhtytham's colleague, U.S. Bank software tester John Collins, went through the set up process on his tester phone for a second time.

First you download the skill from the Alexa companion app, which is like an app store for Alexa products. Then you enable the skill. Then you agree to the skill's terms and conditions. Then you set a four-digit security code, which should be different from your ATM PIN or your normal login password.

Once it was up and running it became clear what Alexa could do. She basically reads out the things you hear when you check your balance on the phone, or that you see when you use online banking. It's the same script:

"Great, now you can you can access your account," says Alexa, after the initializing the account and the skill and linking them.

"These are the three types of account..." she says, and "You have three checking accounts. Which account would you like to access?"

"Say 'Get balance' or 'Review transactions.'"

"It is designed for current customers, not to get people to open accounts. You can ask

Alexa your balance, when your credit card is due...It's a quick step when you don't have time to log in to online banking," says Marrese.

They are working on a version for the Amazon Show, the video version of the Echo. U.S. Bank is figuring out which

graphics to use. Right now it just pulls up the website.

In the car and in the shower

Amazon and U.S. Bank are gambling that people will jump through these hoops to get to an easier, more convenient other side.

Marrese points out that Ford Motor is adopting Alexa for its vehicles.

Amazon reports the most common uses of Alexa right now are people setting a timer and asking it to play music. (The Echo speaker is a high-quality Bose.)

"But more businesses are looking to have an interaction. United Airlines, for instance, lets you check your flight information..."

Flight checking is easy on Google too, and Amazon is aware that Google Home is the biggest competition in the virtual assistant space. Google's white listening tower can talk to outlets over Wi-Fi and tell them to turn appliances on and off.

In fact, while Collins has an Echo at work (away from his coworkers so not to break the studious silence) he has a Google Home at home. He buys $30 outlet adapters that allow him to plug in say, a space heater, so he can turn on lamps and remotely pre-warm his garage. He expects either system to soon be able to answer questions such as 'How much gas is in my car?'

Collins and Marrese are certain that Alexa is secure. For one, they say she does not listen until activated by hearing her name. And after that, while they don't know what happens to all the audio, if it is stored at Amazon or not, the search terms and commands are stored, so that Amazon's artificial intelligence can learn what works. Marrese says the search history can be cleared, and that crucial personal information such as the four-digit security code are replaced by Xs.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - John Collins activates the U.S. Bank skill or app that works with Alexa to allow users to ask the Amazon Echo questions about their bank account.

Also, U.S. Bank hosts the log in pages on its own servers.

"We copied the code that the vendor wrote and plugged it into out main database so our data is not exposed," says Marrese. "We're a bank and by trade we're conservative. We take customer security to the Nth degree. The worst thing that can happen is someone gets in and pays your credit card."

U.S. Bank is the third to adopt Alexa, after Capital One and American Express. With 72,000 employees it likes to test things out on its staff first.

The U.S. Bank Innovations Team in which he works consists of about 30 people, mostly in Minneapolis, the rest scattered around the country. (In 2008 they were the first bank to get on all three phone wallet systems, Apple, Android and Samsung.) When they wanted to go with voice recognition, they looked around for a third party developer who was familiar with Alexa, since that seemed to be the market leader.

They went with Mobiquity Inc. of Boston. "They're a preferred vendor of Amazon. They shared their best practices with us." The result is that instead of plodding though commands like you do on the phone, "Alexa is smart enough that you can start in with 'What's my checking account balance?'"

Marrese's role in the Innovation Design Team is to figure out what needs to be built then pass it on to the developer team.

Sanhtytham is a Mobile Banking Project Owner, part of the channel optimization team. "We take ideas and push them through an agile environment to the mobile app, get feedback from customers, gather data and try to fix the app and put out enhancements," she says. She worked her way up from being a Personal Banker.

Collins is at the end of the process, testing software in the Enterprise Test Management group. As he puts it, "I try to break things for a living."

He explains that much of the work was in formulating what Amazon calls "utterances." These are the ways in which we can phrase something. "There are hundreds of way to ask 'How much money do I have?'"

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP: JOSEPH GALLIVAN  - Christy Sanhthyam, a Mobile Banking Project Owner with U.S. Bank, demonstrates how a customer can now use Amazon's voice recognition software Alexa to access bank account details.

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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