How China Construction Bank Is Operating a Branch Staffed Entirely by Robots

China Construction Bank (CCB) has opened a branch in Shanghai staffed almost entirely by robots brimming with artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR) and facial recognition (FR) technology.

Robots are handling more and more aspects of daily life in Chinese cities. There are robot cooks - both in restaurants and industrial kitchens - robot security guards at railway stations, and Richard Qiangdong Liu, Founder and CEO of Chinese ecommerce giant, recently predicted that robots will eventually replace human workers in the Chinese retail industry, noting that China's unmanned retail sector is expected to triple in size to 65 billion yuan (USD 10 billion) by 2020.

CCB's robot-run branch is a first for the Chinese banking industry - but it could well be the future.

A Branch Run by Smiling Robots

Walking through the front door of the branch, customers are greeted by a friendly-looking robot holding a touchscreen. "Welcome to China Construction Bank," she says with a smile. "What can I help you with today?"

The robot - named Xiao Long, or "Little Dragon" - is able to answer questions via voice recognition technology. Customers tell the bot what they want and then receive a queue number. Next, they pass through the branch's electronic gates, where their faces and National Identification Cards are scanned. On future visits, facial recognition alone is enough to gain entry and call up customer information.

Inside, a second robot answers further queries, while several automated teller machines assist customers with services such as account opening, money transfers, foreign exchange, and some wealth management actions.

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Quick response (QR) code points are available on screens at various spots around the branch. Customers can scan these with their smartphones to pay for products and services, or play interactive augmented reality (AR) games, which CCB says are designed to "make the experience more of an occasion rather than just a branch visit." There's even a virtual reality room which showcases the bank's products.

For those that do wish to converse with a human, private rooms can be reserved for remote chats with client relationship managers via video link.

Aside from a couple of security guards, the branch employs no human staff during opening hours. CCB says that the new set-up is able to handle 90% of the cash and non-cash demands of traditional banking outlets.

A Testing Ground for Public Opinion

Customers, according to the South China Morning Post (SCMP), say that the technology largely functions as intended, though there are a few complaints. One customer made the point that the lobby robots are quite short, meaning adults are left having to crouch to engage with the machine. Others say they are content with mobile banking, and so have no need to visit a branch - not even for the new robot experience.

On the other side of the fence, a digital banker from another mid-sized lender said that the most impressive aspect of the robot-managed branch was the VR machines, noting that they are frequently used in retail, though extremely rare in the banking sector.

SCMP quotes He Fei, a Senior Researcher at Bank of Communications in Shanghai, who said that CCB's robot branch pilot will act as a good testing ground where public opinion can be garnered.

"There will be ample room for improvement," he said. "Unstaffed services can solve repeated and standard demands from mass clients. But human bankers are still needed to offer professional advice, and to serve complicated and personalized demands, for instance by wealthy clients."

The Future of Branches?

CCB's robot-run branch follows a similar approach by Bank of America, which began opening a number of tellerless "robo-branches" last year. BofA's experiment didn't go so far as to employ humanoid robots, but the branches are unmanned all the same.

At CCB, the presence of robots may be thought of as something of a marketing gimmick, for, much like at BofA's experimental branches, it is the automated teller machines that do most of the work - the robots are simply there to meet and greet. Aside from the bots and the impressive VR rooms, this makes the CCB branch not unlike thousands of other Chinese branches with self-serving machines. According to data from the China Banking Association, of the 802,600 in operation, 113,900 are considered "smart" machines that offer services beyond cash deposits and withdrawals.

CCB and Ecovacs Robotics - the company behind the robot technology - insist that robot-managed tellerless branches represent the future of banking around the globe. Though CCB has not yet decided whether to deploy robots in its other 360 branches in Shanghai. If such a vision does eventually become a reality, considering the size of the country's robotics industry ($30 billion), it will likely come to China first.

Automation and branch innovations are set to be hot topics at Future Branches 2018, taking place this December at the Hilton Austin, Austin, TX.

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