Toronto

HSBC introduces 'Pepper' the robot — promising fun, efficiency and job growth

HSBC says its newest employee, a humanoid robot a little more than a metre tall, will be a revelation when it comes to efficiency, customer service and job growth. The history of automation suggests a different result is possible.

Pepper books appointments, offers information about services, and can even dance

Pepper has speakers and cameras embedded in its head, though the bank says it does not record any customer information. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Near the bank tellers at a downtown Toronto HSBC branch, a robot that's a little more than a metre tall invites customers to ask for help before waiting in line for its human co-workers.

A touchscreen tablet attached to its chest brings "Pepper" to life. Cameras embedded in the robot's head allow it to uncannily track human faces in its line of sight.

"How may I help you?" it asks, craning upward.

For the moment, Pepper's options are limited, but diverse. The robot can book appointments with bankers, offer information about products and services, give the weather forecast and even dance.

But HSBC executives say the robot is no gimmick. Instead, the bank expects Pepper to be a revelation when it comes to efficiency, customer service and even job growth.

"Pepper is about elevating our employees because Pepper's going to be bringing in all types of clients into this branch," said Larry Tomei, who runs retail banking and wealth management for HSBC Bank Canada.

The bank's head of innovation describes the robot with even greater enthusiasm.

"We see Pepper as a tool to excite and delight our customers in the branch," said Jeremy Balkin.

Pepper makes human-like gestures and can track faces while it interacts with customers. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

On its first morning in action at the bank's York Street branch, Pepper proves to be a minor attraction.

"I'm not technologically savvy, but this is neat," said customer Cathy Tang after trying out the robot.

"It's good, maybe creepy," added David Di Ulio, who joked about the robot stabbing him as he walked away.

Pepper already in 7 U.S. HSBC locations

HSBC is billing Pepper as the first humanoid robot in Canadian banking. The company has already introduced robots — all of them called Pepper — at seven locations in the United States.

"The experiences and expectations of going into a bank aren't necessarily favourable and [HSBC] wants to try and improve that," said Kass Dawson of Japanese financial giant Softbank, which builds the robots.

At U.S. branches with a Pepper, HSBC says ATM usage has risen by 10 per cent, which the bank attributes to the robot directing customers to the machines. The technology has also been credited with reducing average wait times from four minutes to one minute at one location.

Larry Tomei of HSBC Bank Canada expects Pepper to attract new customers, which he says will lead to job growth at the bank. (Richard Agecoutay/CBC)

"Client service is up, they're hiring more people and employee morale is up," said Tomei. "So we know based on our U.S. experience that Pepper's going to be a huge hit in Canada."

To achieve that level of success, the robot's builders acknowledge that Pepper will have to offer useful services, beyond its novelty features like dancing and taking selfies.

"If it's just a PR stunt... then it might as well just be in the closet doing nothing," Dawson said.

Is Pepper coming for your job?

While the robot promises to offer services that were previously handled by human workers, HSBC insists that Pepper will not jeopardize the jobs of any current employees.

One retail expert said a different story is likely to unfold.

"I think it's almost a fait accompli that indeed there will be employment fallout. The fact that HSBC is sort of candy-coating this doesn't surprise me," said Doug Stephens, who runs the consulting firm Retail Prophet.

Previous forms of automation have altered and eliminated jobs in other industries, including manufacturing and warehouse distribution. (CBC)

For jobs that feature rote tasks centred around data, Stephens expects that artificial intelligence and robotic technology will be a disruptive force.

"Most of the functions that a bank teller performs in a given day are things that are not unique, not out of the ordinary, pretty much the same kind of stuff that happened yesterday," he explained.

Studies have found that as much as half of all existing work will be performed by machines in the coming years.

In that reality, human jobs could be lost, though both Stephens and the bank say another possibility exists: the freeing of human workers to focus on dynamic tasks beyond a robot's ability.

"Automation is something that is here to help people, it's here to help the end customers but also employees in ways that I don't think we understand yet," Dawson said.

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