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Do you need a bot to talk to your bank?

Do you need a bot to talk to your bank?


And if you do, how will you use it?

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They're here — or they're about to be. The wave of bots. We've been waiting for them for half a year now, and now that they've received an imprimatur from the biggest companies in tech we're starting to see them arrive.

Dror Oren, VP of Product for Kasisto, thinks it's about time that the likes of Facebook, Microsoft, and Google caught up. His company has quietly been building the infrastructure (and getting funding) for bots for a couple of years. Today, it's unveiling a banking bot — so you can chat with it instead of dealing with the bank's website, app, or (heaven forbid) calling in to customer service.

Or at least, that's the idea. For Kasisto, the primary target market is actually the banks — so it's releasing two bots. But before we get to the bot meant for banks, let's start with the one you can actually use, designed for for consumers. Though it's functional, it's more of a proof of concept than actual product. Called MyKAI, you can use it to query data from your various banking accounts. It's a little bit like Intuit's Mint service, but in a chat interface.

When you sign up, you submit your banking passwords (they're not given to Kasisto, but rather to companies that can securely handle that sort of thing), and then you're off to the races. Either via SMS, in Facebook Messenger, or in Slack, you can ask questions like "What's my balance?" or "How much did I spend at restaurants in April?" and then follow up with "Ugh. How about May?" — and the MyKAI bot will remember what you're talking about and give you the right answers.

In that way, it might be more convenient than trying to figure out how to work the various filters and options in an app like Mint. And that's the point, Oren says: banking is complicated and within any given banks' website you might have over 150 things you could do. Hunting down the exact transaction you want could involve more clicking than is reasonable or sane. For now, MyKAI is strictly text-based, though it seems likely that future versions will take advantage of all the developer kits that have been released recently for bot-makers and become more graphically interactive.

It's a little like Mint, but in your SMS

Querying your banking data from a startup you've never heard of sounds perilous, but Kasisto does at least have some good bona fides. It comes out of SRI International, the same Standford-associated group that originally birthed Siri. And besides, Oren assures me, his company is anonymizing the data and never itself has full access to your banking passwords. I'm also not clear whether your "banking session" with this chatbot ever ends. As with any new service that promises to make magic of your personal data, caveat emptor.

Kasisto's bot is designed for you to talk directly to it, rather than through an intermediary assistant like Siri or Cortana. That's mainly because, Oren contends, his company understands how to handle natural language queries pretty well and also understands the domain of financial questions better than those other intelligent assistants can.

It also is integrated with Venmo, so you can make payments. The context-keeping trick works there too. In a demo, Oren showed me asking to make a payment to his CEO and then when MyKAI asked him to confirm, he instead asked about how much was left in his checking account. The bot told him in the context of that Venmo request, asking again if he wanted to pay since he clearly had enough to cover the amount.

The real end goal is to get your bank to offer it

But Venmo is the full extent of what the consumer version of Kasisto's banking bot can do, transaction-wise. If you want a bot that can actually interact with your bank directly, you'll have to wait for the company to achieve its true goal: convincing banks to sign up and use its technology themselves. That's the real purpose of the consumer app: sure, it might be useful for app haters (given that it's now conventional wisdom that nobody downloads apps anymore, apparently we're all app haters now), but it's more useful as a proof case to big banks that its customers will want to use this sort of thing.

There are two banks lined up already: The Royal Bank of Canada and DBS Bank, which is powerful in Southeast Asia. If MyKAI picks up steam, the hope is that more will sign up (Wells Fargo Startup Accelerator is an investor).

MyKai seemed to work pretty well in the demo I saw, despite the fact that every bot introduction or integration at this point seems to spawn more questions than it does solutions. I can't speak to whether or not this banking bot will be successful in its own right or if it'll just get bought up by another company (or a bank). That second option has been the fate of many companies that have come out of SRI International. And perhaps that would be a good fate for Kasisto, because trying to get attention and use for a bot seems like it will be way harder than getting an app to succeed — and in 2016, that's damn hard.

Disclosure: my wife works for Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, which makes Messenger. My ethics statement is here.