Future of UAE banking: talking ATMs, holographic cashiers

Banks are boring – even some of the people running them admit that. But new technology means your local branch could be anything but dull in the future.

Lenders from across the UAE gathered last month for a glimpse of how smart devices are set to make visiting your bank as intuitive – and maybe even as enjoyable – as using an iPad.

The gathering was for the opening of a Digital Innovation Centre in Dubai, created by the New York-headquartered consulting firm Synechron, which specialises in banking and finance. Its centre demonstrates technologies such as a super-smart ATM, a “talking” bank that responds to users using artificial intelligence, as well as virtual reality systems.

Farhad Irani, head of retail banking at the UAE lender Mashreq, was one of the attendees. And he was frank about how a visit to your bog-standard bank branch currently compares to alternative pastimes.

“Banking is a very boring experience,” he says. “If you want a good day, you go out with your friends, you go for a massage or you play golf. If you don’t have to go to your dentist, you go to your banker, right? It’s in that order.”

Mashreq has, however, been doing something about that. Two years ago the bank launched its E Cube branch concept, which includes “smart” features such as interactive screens, a giant interactive simulation table that allows customers to view financial projections and beam the information to their phones, and private kiosks for video conferencing with the call centre.

Sixteen of Mashreq’s 45 branches use the smart – and paperless – E Cube technology, Mr Irani says. And this year the bank launched imashreq, which it billed as the “region’s first fully automated” branch.

“What we tried to do was enhance the experience,” says Mr Irani. “The customer doesn’t live with paper, they live with tablets and mobile. So why can’t we use the same in the branches?”

Technology, of course, does not stand still – and experts say the banks of the future will be fundamentally different to today.

Mr Irani expects physical branches to still be around in 10 years’ time, despite the rise of internet banking. But he says they will become “supermarket style” aggregators, pulling in different products – from loans to mortgages – from many providers. “Customers will be able to pick and choose their financial service of choice,” he says.

Synechron’s Digital Innovation Centre in Dubai Media City offers further views of where banking is going in the future.

Vimal Sethi, the managing director of Synechron in the Middle East, says the technology consultancy, which also works with Mashreq, is “talking to pretty much every bank in the UAE right now”.

He demonstrated an application Synechron is building for the Amazon Echo, a giant speaker with built-in microphones that uses artificial intelligence to respond to users’ voice commands. The prototype software responds to voice commands to tell you when your next bill is due, for example, or transferring money to another account. “You will have this type of device in your home in the very near future,” says Mr Sethi.

Another new technology set to be employed by banks is electronic “beacons” that trigger notifications on customers’ smartphones, says Mr Sethi.

“Imagine walking into H&M in the Mall of the Emirates, and as you walk in, your Mashreq app says, ‘hey, did you know you get 15 per cent off in H&M because you’re a Mashreq customer?’” he says.

Faisal Husain, the chief executive of Synechron, says physical bank branches are set to “undergo a dramatic change”. In just 15 years banks could be staffed by holographic representatives that respond to customers using artificial intelligence, he says. Customers could be identified by their fingerprints or even their heartbeats, before being presented with their banking information in a 360°virtual format.

“You go into a room, it’s dark, it authenticates you, it lights up with floor-to-ceiling digital walls with a holographic projection of your representative,” says Mr Husain. “It’s coming.”

More immediate and perhaps more mundane, but no less useful, is a queue-management system currently available to banks, says Mr Husain. Instead of taking a ticket and waiting in line, customers can be notified on their smartphone when a banking representative is available – leaving them free to go shopping.

While the bank of the future will rely more on such technology, that’s not the whole story, says Mr Husain. He expects that UAE lenders will soon start adopting a less formal “cafe banking” style to help differentiate themselves from competitors.

“You now have banks – and we are helping them with this – bringing in that more casual, dress-down, tech-savvy, coffee shop culture,” he says. “[It’s about] changing the experience, and making it more warm, less formal and less intimidating.”

And – of course – much less boring.


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