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Explaining AI for Financial Institutions

It seems like artificial intelligence (AI) has been scaring the general public for years – think Terminator and SkyNet. It’s been a topic that’s all the more confounding and downright worrisome to financial institutions.

But for the 30% of financial institutions that have successfully deployed AI into their operations, according to Deloitte, the results have been anything but intimidating. Not only are they seeing improved performance but also a more enhanced, positive customer experience and ultimately strong financial returns.

For the 70% of financial institutions who haven’t started, are just beginning their journey or are in the middle of implementing AI into their operations, the task can be daunting. AI, machine learning, deep learning, neural networks—what do they all mean? How do they apply to you and how can they be useful to your business? It’s important to demystify the technology and explain how it can present opportunities to the financial industry as a whole.

While AI seems to have only crept into mainstream culture and business vernacular in the last decade, it was first coined by John McCarthy in 1956. A researcher at Dartmouth, McCarthy thought that any aspect of learning or intelligence could be taught to a machine. Broadly, AI can be defined as a machine’s ability to perform cognitive functions we associate with humans, i.e. interacting with an environment, perceiving, learning and solving problems.

Machine learning vs. AI

Machine learning is not the same thing as AI. Machine learning is the application of systems or algorithms to AI to complete various tasks or solve problems. Machine learning algorithms can process data inputs and new experiences to detect patterns and learn how to make the best predictions and recommendations based on that learning, without explicit programming or directives. Moreover, the algorithms can take that learning and adapt and evolve responses and recommendations based on new inputs to improve performance over time.

These algorithms provide organizations with a more efficient path to leveraging advanced analytics. Descriptive, predictive, and prescriptive analytics vary in complexity, sophistication, and their resulting capability. In simplistic terms, descriptive algorithms describe what happened, predictive algorithms anticipate what will happen, and prescriptive algorithms can provide recommendations on what to do based on set goals. The last two are the focus of machine learning initiatives used today.

Machine learning components – supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning

Machine learning can be broken down further into three main categories, in order of complexity: supervised, unsupervised and reinforcement learning. As the name might suggest, supervised learning involves human interaction, where data is loaded and defined and the relationship to inputs and outputs is defined. The algorithm is trained to find the relationship of the input data to the output variable. Once it delivers accurately, training is complete, and the algorithm is then applied to new data. In financial services, supervised learning algorithms have a litany of uses, from predicting likelihood of loan repayment to detecting customer churn.

With unsupervised learning, there is no human engagement or defined output variable. The algorithm takes the input data and structures it by grouping it based on similar characteristics or behaviors, without a defined output variable. Unsupervised learning models (like K-means and hierarchical clustering) can be used to better segment or group customers by common characteristics, i.e. age, annual income or card loyalty program.

Reinforcement learning allows the algorithm more autonomy in the environment. The algorithm learns to perform a task, i.e. optimizing a credit portfolio strategy, by trying to maximize available rewards. It makes decisions and receives a reward if those actions bring the machine closer to achieving the total available rewards, i.e. the highest acquisition rate in a customer category. Over time, the algorithm optimizes itself by correcting actions for the best outcomes.

Even more sophisticated, deep learning is a category of machine learning that involves much more complex architecture where software-based calculators (called neurons) are layered together in a network, called a neural network. This framework allows for much broader, complex data ingestion where each layer of the neural network can learn progressively more complex elements of the data. Object classification is a classic example, where the machine ‘learns’ what a duck looks like and then is able to automatically identify and group images of ducks. As you might imagine, deep learning models have proved to be much more efficient and accurate at facial and voice recognition than traditional machine learning methods.

Whether your financial institution is already seeing the returns for its AI transformation or is one of the 61% of companies investing in this data initiative in 2019, having a clear picture of what is available and how it can impact your business is imperative. How do you see AI and machine learning impacting your customer acquisition, underwriting and overall customer experience?