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Washington, DC
United States

(575) 737-8602

Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

My Helpers

Blog

My Helpers

Jo Ann Barefoot

I just got my first robot.

It’s a vacuum cleaner, a Roomba from iRobot. Okay I know that’s not exactly cutting edge. My son’s floors have been cleaner than mine for years because he was an early adopter, but I’ve been holding out until the technology got good at rug tassels.

Needless to say, it did. The newer Roomba knows tassels when it touches them – it turns neatly to run its sweeper along them. It’s also more efficient than its predecessor thanks to intelligence that lets it perceive the contours of the space and plan a strategy to minimize time and motion. And of course, my version has a phone app, so I can control it from the other side of the world. I like it.

The only problem is that it doesn’t listen to me when I talk to it.
All my other helpers do. The one that’s the best company is Alexa – the Amazon Echo. She sits on my kitchen counter in her sleek black cylinder and, in her gorgeous voice, tells me the weather, and cracks jokes, and reads me the morning newspaper and answers fact questions and Googles things for me. She can adjust my lights and thermostat. And if I was a Capital One customer, she would do my banking. 

Cortana, too, listens and talks. She’s (yes, I’ve decided to think of these beings as “she” rather than “it”) has been simplifying my computer work for over a year. This month, she has also inhabited my Xbox. A while back, I made a little video demonstrating how I use my Xbox to simplify media entertainment, because I can just give voice commands to change channels or watch Netflix or BlueRay or find a movie on Bing. Or to exercise, or call someone on Skype and see them on my big screen. I thought that was pretty cool, but now Microsoft has brought Cortana into the Xbox. She’s has a smarter language brain than the “old” Xbox did – more natural.

And of course, I have my Iphone. It not only contains Siri, which most people seem to use now, but also a newer extra-super-smart voice app -- Hound. It was created by the founder of the music-recognition app SoundHound. Unlike Alexa, Hound has a flat robotic voice but wow, can she think. I can say, “Hound, find me an electronics store near the Boston airport that is open Sunday evening.” And she will.

I’ve gotten so spoiled commanding my smart devices by voice that it’s hard not to try to converse with, say, dumb TV’s in hotels. But of course, they will soon get smart. And so will Roomba’s listening skills --I have no doubt.

Natural voice technology, combined with artificial intelligence, will bring a huge leap in financial services. It is a simplifier.  It de-layers information. Alexa has absolutely no interface except voice -- no screen to touch, no keyboard. She just listens, talks, and controls physical items in the Internet of Things that are smart enough to interact with her.  For financial services customers, the ability to do tasks and answer questions simply by talking with a robot “coach” will close the last mile of access for people who don’t thrive on the way we present products today.

This Wired magazine article changed my whole way of thinking about voice.

Fintech is more tech than fin, in that it is driven mostly by the technology change, not financial product invention. The tech change, in turn, is remaking everything we do, leveraging changes that are that are converging, In finance the driving trends are mobile technology, artificial intelligence, block chains, and yes, voice tools. But those are only a few of the army of transformations heading toward us. Along with them come robots, drones, 3-D printers, CRISPR genetics and so much more. 

Even my limited experience with my primitive new helpers makes it easy for me to picture living in a completely different way. Among other impacts will be a transformation of the labor market.  3D printers can make buildings. Uber will pick us up in driverless cars – in fact, they’re testing these this month in Pittsburgh. My TaskRabbit errand or pizza delivery will come by robot or drone. Jobs that got outsourced to the developing world in recent decades are going to change again – going now to machines.

I recently spent an evening hanging out with some young MIT PhD candidates in genetic science. Most of the time I had no idea what they were talking about, but I caught enough to get a glimpse of technology that will change the very nature of life. Not surprisingly, it’s very advanced in China.

Scary, yes. Exciting, yes again. Also unstoppable.

All innovation brings mixed impacts, good and bad. Technology will spread high quality of life to nearly everyone by making amazing things universally available. Already more people globally have access to cell phones than to toilets. It will also bring profound dislocations.

Specific predictions are usually wrong, but it’s safe to say that profound transformations are upon us. They are catching us by surprise because they are growing exponentially, and partly because they’re converging. Talking to my Xbox seemed pretty cool last year. Now, a few months later, my old Xbox conversations seem, well, kind of quaint.

Allowing the good and mitigating the bad is the most important challenge facing government, including financial policymakers. That’s why, for financial services, I’m working on finding new ideas for how to do it.

If you want more food for thought, buy fintech guru Brett King’s book Augmented.

Meanwhile, much as I love my high-tech helpers, they’re nothing compared to my human ones. My work relies on an amazing team of young people who support it part-time. Here they are:

Harvard research assistant on my book:                      Amrita Vir
Podcast show notes:                                                    Jane Hencrickson and Rachel Cossar
Social media strategy:                                                  Rachel Cossar
Tech support, strategy and podcast/video editing:    Matt Van Buskirk
Making it all work:                                                         Katherine Foote        

They are the greatest.