In the annals of British corporate history it’s difficult to think of another sector other than banking that has endured such a sustained collapse in public trust.
Since the virtual complete failure of the financial system in 2008 and its subsequent bailout using taxpayer money, the crises and scandals have continued apace.
There’s been the payment protection insurance scandal where those same members of the public were mis-sold products they did not need; the Libor-rigging furore; the manipulation of foreign exchange rates; and more recently revelations that HSBC had seemed to implicitly encourage tax avoidance.
According to a recent survey by one PR company, the level of public trust in banks stands at just 36 per cent (although that might seem surprisingly high to some). This shows that the sector has much work to do to re-establish itself as one of the trusted – if not essential – cornerstones of life.
The decline in the reputation of the banks has corresponded with the rise of new technology that is threatening to make those same banks redundant. With niche web-based companies providing crowd-funding and mini-bonds for loans and online payment systems rendering some of the traditional functions of the bank obsolete, some are questioning what the future for these institutions is.
It’s interesting then that in Japan – a country that has also laboured under various sporadic banking crises and financial bubbles over the decades – retail banks have turned to robots to replace human interaction.
Japan’s largest bank, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, has unveiled an all-talking and all-walking robot employee that is being introduced into its Tokyo branches in April this year.
The robot named Nao, was developed by French robotics company Aldebaran Robotics, and will be expected to carry out basic tasks, which include greeting customers, calculating currency exchange and explaining the bank’s products. Nao is also able to speak and understand 16 different languages and read customer’s emotions through new facial expression recognition software.
As a technological gimmick and an attempt to stimulate growth in a country faced with a shrinking workforce (and therefore in need of more robotic technology) it seems a sensible move.
But what could the implications of the introduction of robots be over here (after all, facial recognition software may be something that might be useful if it is faced with the ire of a UK customer facing unexplained bills or unpaid PPI compensation?)
Given that the bankers (fairly or not) are currently tarnished with a reputation for rampant greed and unscrupulous dealings perhaps it comes down to trust? Maybe British customers would rather face a robot than a bank employee, some of whom brought the sector into such ill repute?
It’s an arguable point and one that is likely to unfold over the next few years. But either way the rise of such technology (along with the growth of web-based banking companies and, some might say, driver-less cars that rely on technology rather than the skills of a driver) suggests that trust in tech might be growing at a rate that corresponds to an acknowledgment of human frailties.
To read more about the bank backing robots in Japan, click here.