How do financial services fit into the robot readable world?

As our world is increasingly layered with QR Codes, RFID tags and all manner of sensors designed to be read, interacted with and updated by other machines I wondered what role banks and the equipment they have deployed in society play in all this. This post was inspired by Matt Jones’ excellent post which brought together his, and others, work on The Robot Readable World. The other piece that ties into this is the 8,000 word delight that is Street as Platform by Dan Hill. If you have not already read these pieces then I urge you to stop reading this drivel and go and read those first. Go down the rabbit hole and then come back to this in a few hours or days when you have emerged and if you so desire.

The two articles I mentioned are important pieces in defining how this robot readable world will look, feel & operate. Matt quotes himself from a previous talk to describe how this robot readable world will come into being.

“What if, instead of designing computers and robots that relate to what we can see, we meet them half-way – covering our environment with markers, codes and RFIDs, making a robot-readable world”

The first line of street as a platform sets the scene perfectly

‘The way the street feels may soon be defined by what cannot be seen with the naked eye’

Dan Hill paints a, in his own words banal, picture of a busy cross roads, the surrounding environment and how the silent systematic interactions monitor and affect the daily lives of the streets users. One of the reasons for this banality (although I have to argue it is far from banal) is that it features technology available and in use at the time it was written, 2008. Three years later and these technologies have still not permeated our streets to any great degree but it feels like we are on the cusp of that changing. As we edge ever closer to blanket wifi coverage, universal smartphone ownership, ever cheaper sensors and tags, this ubiquitous sensor laden network feels very close. It has to be asked how will this affect the design of our urban landscape to become both robot and human friendly.

‘What’s evolving to become ‘attractive’ and meaningful to both robot and human eyes?

One thing that did occur to me while reading these pieces was that words like bank and pay feature only a handful of times. I have a (biased) feeling the financial interactions and related data will play a huge part in this evolution of our urban environment. Whether that is for the better or worse will be interesting to see.

From a banking point of view it is difficult to see past the fact that the future of financial interaction will be heavily linked to mobile devices. The physical representations of money that we know today, the plastic debit/credit card, the paper cheque book, the steel and plastic ATM will all be replaced eventually by mobile connected devices of varying forms. The physical will be replaced by the digital but will that revolution happen before the rise of the robots?  Will the addition of robot readable elements to those physical tools of finance be rendered pointless? Or will the physical elements exist long enough to be worth changing (I mean we can’t get rid of cheques by 2018 in the UK so it is safe to assume they will be around for some time yet). Also is the mobile the ultimate robot? These are my initial thoughts on this and they are primarily concerned with the bread and butter personal finance elements although there are some dalliances into the world of commercial business and investment banking.

So here is my banal picture of a similar section of a city to the one mentioned by Dan in the not too distant future.

A teenage girl is shopping with her friends. She tries on an outfit and takes a photo. The phone calculates the value by reading the RFID tags in the garments. She does not have enough money in her prepaid mobile wallet. She sends a photo to her Dad with her best sad puppy dog look and asks for a bit of extra cash. He sends the money and because he is a premium customer at his bank he can send a 25% discount to his daughter for the next time she shops there. When she purchases the item because her wallet is linked to an adult the store knows her father. They can see is a well known author with a healthy audience on line so they offer to discount the outfit by 10% if she tweets about it on purchase. In the vain hope of a retweet from her father. She does tweet about it and uploads it to WIWT.

A young couple push a pram along the street. They have recently set up a saving goal for a a family car. This has triggered an intention to buy and they have expressed a preference of a 5 door smallish MPV, 2 years old max. A Renault Scenic matching the description cruises by. The car has been registered for sale and emits a signal captured by the fathers phone. An entry is quietly logged. Insurance costs are calculated. A loan is validated. Vehicle history is fully checked. The car passes with flying colours and leaves the couple with a simple decision to go and see the car. They do and they buy with the help of the pre-approved loan and a tap of two phones. The digital display tax disc is automatically updated also.

A professional photographer is leading a photo walk and is giving paid lessons to a couple of pupils. The payment was in the form of skills exchange and a 3 hour photo lesson to a plumber and tiler means he is getting his bathroom work done pretty cheaply. As he snaps photos they are uploaded to Flickr and licensed to Getty Images. Someone purchases an image while he is on the walk and his money is immediately paid. A reassuring beep in his pocket notifies him of this as he captures another shot of the street. The value of his portfolio increases this allows his time exchange rate to increase as well.

Four friends are having a spot of lunch. The bill arrives and they split the payment using three forms of payment, mobile, credit card and payment chip. The waiter has chosen to be tipped in a virtual currency. It might look something like this. These series of transactions fire off all manner or data streams. As the bill has been paid it means the table is about to become free and the online booking system is updated.

One of the bill payers has chosen to round up all transactions. As the bill is paid she is notified on her phone and given the option to add it to her savings or to donate it to her preferred local cause, Sheffield Childrens Hospital.  She chooses to donate to the hospital and her tax calculations are updated accordingly. She has also triggered an invite to the hospital ball at Xmas. The giant donations display board on the front of the hospital captures the amount and updates its total in an eye catching animation. A new dialysis machine is automatically ordered.

A runner glides by pedestrians. His route is being tracked by Nike+. His health status is being tracked also. His VO2 Max levels are good. The run is making up for last nights beer and curry which were captured via his bio plaster. The run and health data are shared with his health insurance provider and his premiums are reduced. A driver swerves in front of the runner and parks badly taking up two spaces. His car payment device is charged twice and he receives a notification that his inconsiderate driving and parking could result in a fine in the future. His car insurance provider is also notified. His premiums won’t be reduced.

Above the parking space a couple are browsing a gallery. The artist exhibiting has works for sale and is seeking donations for his kickstarter fund. Gaze tracking cameras are fitted above all the art works. As the couple stop at a piece it calculates the time they spent admiring the work, their age and their desire levels for the piece. An ego dashboard viewed by the artist updates to reflect another visitor and admirer.  The couple move to another piece. The interactive node pulses and begs them to tap their phone.  They interact with the work using NFC. An option to donate is embedded with the information, as is an option to buy. They are torn between which piece to buy. They choose to buy the first one they saw. Their desire for the other piece was recorded and a savings goal suggestion has been passed to their account. As they leave the gallery the framing store across the road has digital signage that shows the work they just bought in a selection of their frames. The value of the piece is added to his art collection. It’s value on the traded arts index is calculated.

A small group of students fresh from a (half) day of lectures head into a bar, the fourth bar they have visited today. They order drinks and as one student goes to pay with his phone it begins to vibrate as the amount it needs to pay breaks his weekly expenditure budget for alcohol. He begins to sober up a little as he realises this budget was agreed with his father after last terms financial issues. His friend offers to pay instead, saving an awkward notification being sent to his father.

One of their drinking companions places a few bets on the days sporting events. His penchant for risky long shots and complex triples and accumulators helps to build a detailed risk profile with his betting company of choice. He has chosen to share that risk profile with his investment management software to model his micro investments based on that same risk profile. His investment record is slightly better than his betting history.

A new clothing store has opened. A man searches for a birthday gift for his ethically minded friend. He scans the store and checks its trading policies and is able to interrogate full iXBRL statements showing where every penny of their organisation goes. The phone classes the company as green and this gives him the green light to buy. As he browses the store his phone is scanned to reveal his identity. His credit rating is excellent, as is his Peer Index score. The dynamic price tags alter accordingly as he views various items.  He purchases a nice dress and the digital gift receipt contains the sourcing details of all materials, distance they have traveled and details of the factory where the item was made. Somewhere in Africa another version of the dress is shipped to someone even more deserving because of this purchase.

A man needs cash to pay his builder. He has scanned for the nearest ATM with available cash and is walking towards it. He joins the queue. The ATM senses the queue size and limits its features based on this. It will only dispense cash, no statements or receipts are available temporarily. Finally the man gets to the front of the queue he taps his phone and his usual amount is presented. He clicks one button and leaves. The cash is printed with unique barcodes that are linked to the person withdrawing the cash. The cash is very difficult for the builder to actually spend anonymously as every note is tracked in now and ID is required to complete cash transactions so this simple tax evasion has been eradicated.

Down a side street two men shake on a deal. One of the men makes a signal and a small boy deposits something in a crack in a wall across the street. The other man heads over and takes the parcel. He walks a short distance then passes his phone by the portable HiSecurityBitCoin Deposit Port and anonymously pays the drug dealer.

A young entrepreneur passes a homeless person. His begging card features a URL. The link is browsed by the young man and it takes him to a Kiva investment page. He can make a microloan to the man for a share in his future earnings from his amusing begging card meme business. He contributes £30. He heads towards his bank branch. He enters and his phone is scanned as is his palm vein pattern as he places his hand on the door. The video booth door opens and he steps inside. His information has connected him to an appropriate advisor based on his relationship with the organisation. They discuss an upgrade to his personal trading robot.

And there ends the banality…well not quite.

What do we mean by robots? For me the use of the term robot conjures up images of the classic 6ft tall metal creatures from countless classic sci-fi films and books. I think in this context the robots refers to any machine which has sensors built in and can capture something about the world it inhabits. This could be a simple pressure pad driven traffic light, the sensor laden gadget we carry everywhere, the smart phone, and hopefully some moving & talking versions of what we actually know as a robot.  Connectivity to the web will of course be key. The other element of this is data. As linked data stores grow and evolve so will the power of the robots. The speed at which they can interrogate relevant and related data sources will be the key factor in how powerful the robots become. The real key is the capture of events. Sensors of varying size, scale and capability. Picking up information about the simple things like transactions, location and movement. It is how these things are pieced together and fed into algorithms to signify an event. I gazed at an item in a store for 3 seconds. My heart beat rose slightly. I had viewed a similar item online last week. A clear intent to purchase? or save? or invest?

How might this existing financial service layer be altered to help the robots see it? The most obvious part of the cities and towns that are the automated mechanical face of banks are the ATMs. These 60s creations seem ripe for a higher level of awareness about their status, the identity of their users and the ability to talk with other devices. As we move to tapping the NFC equipped mobile against the ATM to withdraw cash (assuming mobile payments have not become so much easier than actually using cash) then it becomes easier for the ATM to sense who is around the machine. Could it calculate queuing levels and notify outwards accordingly. Feed to your car navigation to say the ATM you are heading for is busy and is currently holding only 5% of it’s cash capacity. The car suggests an alternative which is reporting as being queue free. If cash use does become increasingly rare then what could these 24 hour windows to the bank network become? Thankfully someone else has thought about that.

Cash. What of money itself? Should the physical tokens of exchange be readable by the robots? The Dutch Mint recently launched a series of coins featuring QR Codes, A few entries to the 2009 dollar redesign competition featured bar codes. If coins and notes could be scanned as they were used by tills, vending machines etc could we paint a picture of the movement of cash? See how the physical cash moves about inside a community? And around the wider world? This has been attempted with today’s money for the Where’s George project. This tracking data actually showed how diseases spread.

Cheques. Today the mobile is capable of seeing and reading a cheque. Capturing the details and sending them through the air to be processed as if they were captured at the branch and shipped to the clearing centres. My first job in banking was the implementation of cheque imaging at several of these clearing centres around the UK.

The clearing centres back then were large industrial units housing 40 foot long sorting machines with names like NDP1825s (Network Document Processors, the number representing the theoretical rate of throughput of cheques per minute), capable of taking several images of cheques while also reading the MICR ink to capture the institution and account details. Huge mechanical and noisy beasts. Sucking in and firing out vouchers from a hopper to numbered pockets further down the length of the machine. A small stack of storage servers allowed these photos to be stored and hundreds of workstations allowed captured images to be processed by humans reading the amounts and text scrawled on cheques then inputting the values. These inputs were all ultimately feeding files on a data centre housed bank strength mainframe. This was my first real interaction with the robots of banking *dewy eyed nostalgia ends here*

Later projects added new hardware and software to read the human entered amounts on the paper cheques and thus reduce human processing requirements further. Now we have the capability to take a photo and the cheque is paid (gross oversimplification).

Snap a cheque

Potential changes to these banking products and services feel doable but I am not sure they ever will be due to boring things like business cases. Also the fact that, as I mentioned before, the mobile will replace so many elements of the relationship we have with cash and cheques. This will be made possible by the fact mobiles will become debit/credit cards with P2P payment technology as well as being able to act as point of sale terminals. This change to how the mobile device is viewed and used going forwards is clearly massive. With that in mind in here a few financial interactions that I see being affected by this robot view of the world sooner rather than later.

The debit/credit card of the future will no longer be a one way communication device. It will still be read by the same terminals and ATMs but it will become a two way communication device. Today’s contactless cards employ basic connectivity using RFID and this could allow it to react to the signals it receives. Could the card glow red or green as you bring it close to a payment terminal? The changes required to the cards themselves make this change cool but prohibitive.

With mobiles this is much simpler. It will have location technology built in so knows when it is about to purchase. Feedback from the screen or from other haptic interfaces could discreetly let you know you can’t afford it. NFC will allow the transfer of payment, loyalty interactions, digital receipts and the like in a single touch. Extra data from your handheld robot can be appended to the transaction such as geographic location or when bio sensors emerge maybe your tiredness levels (I was not thinking straight when I bought these skinny jeans).

Mortgages.  The buying and selling of a house is one of the most complex financial interaction most of us will undertake in our lives. How could the robots make that easier? How do the robots see houses? As you drive round your desired area to move to looking for houses for sale. Can you scan houses? GPS mixed with recognised 3D map of the house retrieved from the land registry data store. See how much they are on sale for, historical sale prices, see the value of other houses in the street, see how much you could bid up to based on your mortgage agreement in principal, past survey results and have any of the neighbours been featured in the Sheffield Star court report. Commonwealth Bank of Australia produced a slick video last year showing their vision of how robots might see houses (about 1 minute in) Commonwealth Bank – Vision for 2013.

Humans > Androids I think like so many other industries the real changes will occur as the human move closer to the network and they become robot readable. The obvious robot readable element of humans is biometrics. Lauded for years they have not made any meaningful advances in the financial world. I use a finger print scanner to gain access to my son’s nursery. Nothing like this exists at my bank. Clearly it seems certain mobile phone companies think biometrics might make a come back. The image below shows Apples recent patent submission for biometric reader built in as you swipe to unlock your phone (620 on the diagram).  They have also registered patents for facial recognition and even heartbeat signatures.

iPhone Swipe My Finger

I have spoken lightheartedly/with borderline vulgarity about the ability for NFC enabled bio sensors to be attached to humans. This is an interesting step for the world of finance. Imagine if you agreed to have those sensors hooked to life insurance policies. Allowing you to stick to your word that you do only drink 20 units a week. Who would ever agree? The organisation would have such granular data they would catch you out for something but the agreement would need to be transparent enough to deal with this. The data could also act as ultimate feedback mechanism fodder ‘Loyal consumer. You seem to be travelling 100 miles an hour, have 0.65 milligrams of alcohol in your blood and have been awake for 17 hours. If you do not take immediate action your premium will adjusted accordingly’. Of course the algorithm for calculating your insurance risk would then have to be as transparent as your bodily data. Financial companies are not so well known for sharing equally.

Some people think bio sensors will never catch on but as we spend more and more time with a phone seemingly grafted to our hand the closer technology becomes to being part of our body then the more accessible by robots we become.

Will robots and sensors not actually see us in some sort of pixellated/kinect captured/glitched/3D represenation but in fact by scanning the robotic element we carry, the biometric information we offer and therefore see us as a series of 1s and 0s fed directly from our phone. Giving direct access to the currency/celebrity/societal value of that person without the need for anonymous scanning. Depressing thought.

Sharing data about you with the robots. What about financial elements of you that you may wish to share with the robots? Walk into a clothing emporium and the price tags alter based on your credit rating/premium customer level/stupid social media scores fed from your connected device. Suggestions for matching items are highlighted via glowing shelf tags fed by the clothing purchase data over the last 3 months.

It can’t all be about mobile and NFC because by it’s nature, the clue is in the name Near Field Communication, needs to be near to create a link. RFID broadcast may be more relevant to some parts of this future world unless the physical tap is required to switch it on when you walk into a shop or a railway station. If I choose to broadcast personal information what would that be? My mobile device says I am Aden, age 35-44, Aries. I will tell you this much about me. If you want more then a physical interaction is required for the service/robot to get access to it.

Privacy & Fears. All this automatic scanning and interactions happening on your behalf without you knowing are a privacy nightmare set in a minefield. What on earth the interface for controlling this would look like is beyond me. Personal control will be very important if this is to ever get close to taking off. The other element is identity. Sharing an identity of whatever sort with something seemingly inhuman will not only require a robust framework the likes of which we are no where near it will also take a great deal of trust.

Will we see a day where people are prevented from entering stores unless they are connected to the network. No connection means you can’t see the persons credit available. If you can’t afford to buy, why should you clutter up the store. This could in theory eradicate shop lifting. There might be one or two issues of ethics/morality but let’s not dwell on that too much as this post is already far too long.

Of course no discussion about the robot readable world of finance is complete without mention of security risks. Future Daily Mail headlines will probably scream things  ‘Waves of unstoppable Eastern European Flying Robots steal cash from the sky’ as the more readable and scannable financial information becomes the riskier things become. We will probably see a healthy trade in RFID/Robot unreadable wallets. These are of course valid concerns and security with financial segvices is always paramount but there needs to be a balance to allow innovation to flourish. It is also important that whenever you are scanned or creating data that this is accessible to you. You can see how the web of data is affected by your actions and the actions that have been taken because of that. Relaying it back might be more scary than doing it privately but doing it sneakily is wrong on a different level. The security risks are clearly huge but someone else can write 4,000 words on those.

In conclusion, my thoughts on this subject feel very much robot world 1.0. I feel constrained by the desire to robotise the physical financial interactions and services of the present while in the knowledge that the evolution of mobile and its affect on the physical manifestations of finance will in all probability reduce them significantly if not kill them completely. The evolution of the web today, often categorised as social and mobile, will change our concepts of currency and banks to such a degree that it is impossible (for someone of limited intelligence like me) to really see where this is heading.

The impact of someone carrying a device with them capable of both giving and receiving money changes things so greatly on its own. How this plays out over the next 5 years will shape the financial landscape for decades. The ubiquity of NFC/RFID in mobile handsets should be with us by around 2015 and that will mark a real turning point in the physical to digital connectivity of the planet and will mean the robots will truly be able to get involved.

The other thing I can’t predict is the closeness of that mobile device to humans. If those connections become tighter than merely having it to hand at all times but actual physical links between the network, numerate data sources and living tissue then anything stated above will be just a fraction of what becomes possible.

I have shied away from the High Frequency Trading robots that may have a an even bigger impact on the financial systems of the world than they have already. This is mainly due to my lack of understanding and a desire to finish the post sometime this year as it is an even deeper rabbit hole.

I think what ever happens the robots will want to see the financial world but it depends how many financial institutions decide they want the robots to see it. I hope that it will be a great number of institutions as this will allow us to enter a future that actually feels like he future we were promised. These are my initial thoughts on how the world of finance fits into the robot readable world.


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Anonymous says:

Wow! Thats a post! You pretty much managed to put all current innovations in Financial Services in a Brave New World kind of Future. Instapapered for further reading (it needs it) and actual comments.

cmogle says:

Bravo. I am with Tek_Fin. This deserves a comment as thoughtful as the post itself.

Stephen Hill says:

Wow, so much in here – have put it on my read list for the commute tomorrow…great work sir.

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