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My bank is now staffed by a helpful robot

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Meet Nao, Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ's latest employee

Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ is Japan's biggest bank, and I've been a customer for over six years. That may have been a good call, because now it's the first to employ robots. Aldebaran Robotics' Nao, a bipedal android that costs around $8,000, is now "staffing" UFJ's glitzy flagship branch near Tokyo station. Nao speaks Japanese, English, and Chinese, and is designed to answer inquiries ranging from how to open a bank account to what someone should do if they lose their cash card. Perhaps less usefully, the robot can also dance and act out sports poses.

I spent the afternoon talking to Nao after UFJ's closing hours. Nao is somewhat reminiscent of SoftBank’s Pepper — soon to be adopted by rival bank Mizuho — with a similar brand of friendly, neutral cuteness; this isn’t surprising, since Aldebaran is responsible for Pepper’s design as well. Nao is much smaller than Pepper, standing around two feet tall, but this allows him to be fully bipedal. His sense of balance is particularly impressive when it stands on one leg to perform complex dance moves.

nao robot at UFJ

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Nao is less engaging a conversationalist than an athlete. He talks in the same chirpy, expressive tones as Pepper, and it’s possible to get a reasonable amount of useful information out of him in Japanese. But his voice recognition is a little glitchy at this stage, often failing to pick up on questions from me and UFJ staff. And, although Nao is meant to speak Chinese and English as well, he’s not quite a polyglot once you get past small talk. "We need to explain a few things," he answered when I asked about opening an account, "so please bring someone who is capable of speaking Japanese."

Nao could be of particular use to foreigners in Japan

But as with other voice-recognition software like Siri, it’s easy to see Nao getting better with some updates on the server side. And if that happens, the robot could be of particular use to foreigners in Japan. Right now the Japanese banking system is a complex web of confusion for visitors; banks like UFJ don’t allow cash withdrawals with cards from outside the country, for example, which can be a problem since several places still don’t accept card payments. UFJ ATMs will start to accept foreign cards in the future, a company representative tells me, and Nao may prove helpful with the flock of tourists coming to Tokyo for the 2020 Olympics.

Still, the rows of tellers and other assistants at UFJ aren’t going to be out of work any time soon. "They’re not worried," the representative tells me when I ask. For now, and for the foreseeable future, Nao is little more than a cute augmentation of existing services. But if robots like Nao can help customers traverse the sometimes impenetrable veneer of the banking system, they may be a gimmick worth pursuing.