Meet Siri’s Little Sister, Lola. She’s Training for a Bank Job.

6/27/12Follow @wroush

Whatever you want Lola to get, Lola will get it for you. As long as it has something to do with your bank account.

Lola is a new virtual personal assistant that BBVA Compass, the North American subisidiary of Spanish banking giant Banco Bilbao Viczaya Argentaria, started testing on its website Tuesday. She’s the co-creation of BBVA and SRI International, the same Menlo Park, CA-based contract R&D institute that developed Siri, the virtual personal assistant now built into Apple’s iPhone 4S.

Lola’s purpose in life is to make self-service experiences more gratifying for BBVA customers, says Beatriz Lara Bartolomé, BBVA’s chief innovation officer. “I’m responsible for designing the bank of the future, the next banking model based on technology,” Bartolomé explains. “The Lola project is a key component of our customer-centric orientation—our new relationship with customers.”

Both Lola and Siri are offspring of CALO project, a five-year defense project at SRI to build a personalized assistant that could help military leaders manage information in command-and-control environments. But while they share a common genetic heritage, their personalities are nothing alike. Siri is like a polymath with a touch of memory loss. She can show you a traffic map, or send a text message, or tell you whether it’s raining in Sacramento, but she has no real picture of you and your needs; every time you talk to her, it’s like she’s meeting you for the first time. Lola, by contrast, has deep knowledge of you and your history, remembers the theme of a conversation, and can figure out what you’re aiming at even if you don’t say it. But she only understands one subject: banking and finance.

I drove down to Menlo Park Tuesday to see one of the first live demonstrations of Lola offered to anyone outside SRI or BBVA. As I watched, SRI computer scientist Michael Wolverton asked Lola standard banking questions such as when his next loan payment was coming up, how much was left in his checking account, and whether he could set up a regular monthly mortgage payment. Lola answered with aplomb, asked for clarification when necessary, and carried out instructions. The whole conversation took place in spoken English, though Lola also understands typed commands.

Basically, Lola is the first virtual personal assistant tailored for a specific area of commerce. Bill Mark, SRI’s vice president of information and computer sciences, calls Lola the “next generation of virtual personal assistant technology”—the first generation being Siri—and says the high-level goal of the project with BBVA was to create a program that could understand a user’s intent and reason about the best course of action. “We felt we had to go beyond Siri because here we want a system that can really be an assistant, meaning software that knows us, knows what to do, knows how to do it, and then does it,” Mark says.

SRI supplied the core artificial-intelligence engine behind Lola, while BBVA helped to prime her with specific knowledge about the kinds of tasks banking customers need to accomplish. In the field trials that started yesterday and will continue for several months, BBVA Compass is rounding out Lola’s training through live encounters with bank employees and their families.

The bank hopes to open up the service to general customers “as soon as possible,” according to Bartolomé. Only BBVA Compass account holders will be able to try out the technology, at least at first—“For the moment, it is our baby,” Bartolomé says. But there’s a possibility that BBVA would eventually license the technology to other banks as a standard conversational interface.

Bartolomé says BBVA first approached SRI about building Lola back in 2006, after field research showed that customers want more “simplicity and human reassurance” when they bank. “Our vision is that we should include human-like interactions at all of our touch points,” whether that means a website, an ATM, or a mobile app, she says.

“BBVA came to us with this vision of a virtual personal assistant for online banking, and we talked it over for a period of time, and said ‘Yes, we can build this,’” says SRI’s Mark.

But that was easier said than done. “We wanted a system that can take speech, typing, and other user interface gestures and understand the user’s intent, then reason about the best course of action to pursue, and then output it. But in order to do what BBVA wanted to do, it also had to be … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Adevarul

     Steve Jobs here,

    SIRI works great! You trogs are just holding the phone wrong!  Everything Apple makes is
    excellent.  Any faults are user error.  Now don’t make me come back
    there and demonstrate!!