Bank of America sign
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Bank of America has begun to roll out Erica, a chatbot that can help you check balances, reminds you about bills and answer your bank-related questions.

Michelle Moore, head of digital banking at Bank of America, tweeted on Friday that Erica is now available to customers in Rhode Island. Moore said to expect additional updates in coming weeks.

Moore first demoed Erica at fintech and payments conference Money 2020 in 2016. Employees of Bank of America began testing Erica last year.

Starting small

Major banks are often cautious when rolling out new consumer-facing technology, which explains why there is a very limited geographical debut for Erica. Similarly, JPMorgan Chase is testing its digital bank pilot Finn in St. Louis.

Catherine Bessant, chief operations and technology officer at Bank of America, has said that an institution the size of Bank of America doesn’t want something to go wrong in front of more than 30 million customers. Botched execution is decidedly different at one of the largest banks in the country than at a fintech startup.

Specific details about Erica’s functionality will be forthcoming, but what we know so far is that customers will be able to interact with the chatbot via voice or text, and it will help you with things like scheduling a payment or listing recent transactions. Some predictive functions are expected to be included, too.

Buzz about bots

Chatbots and voice-controlled banking have been a major topic of discussion in banking and technology circles over the last couple of years. This includes bank-specific bots like Erica or Capital One’s Eno, as well as creating bank tools or skills for virtual assistants like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. This also includes platforms like Facebook messenger, where several banks have introduced the ability to interact with either a banker or a chatbot.

Users are increasingly comfortable interacting with digital assistants, and the technology is only improving. In a sense, Chatbots restore some of the personal connection that has been lost to banking as the internet has made the experience more self directed. While you may be speaking to a robot, the service is designed to feel like you’re talking to a banker. Banks love the idea because it gives them the ability to serve customers in a personalized way, but also in a uniform way — a chatbot is not going to have a bad day the way someone at a call center might.

While institutions like Bank of America have ample resources to develop their own, firms like Kasisto, LivePerson and Personetics are looking to help bring chatbots and artificial intelligence capabilities to banks of all sizes. Personetics is working with Royal Bank of Canada on an automated savings tool, Kasisto is working with DBS, Singapore’s largest bank, on India’s first mobile-only bank, and LivePerson is helping Italian challenger bank Buddybank provide its users with concierge-like services.

From assistant to advisor

Watch this space, as the AI revolution in banking is just getting started. Expect to see a rapid evolution from hands-free digital assistants — “Erica, schedule a payment, please” — to sophisticated services that can help you improve your financial life. Think of a situation where a chatbot might tell you “Good job on putting money in your savings account, but you should route some of that to paying down your debt.” Or you ask it to help you create a plan to buy a house.

That type of service could help build better relationships between banks and their customers and the ever-improving world of data analytics can make that happen.