Business & Tech

Amazon’s Alexa aims to be a bank teller, insurance agent, too

Amazon’s Echo Dot and Tap devices employ Alexa.
Amazon’s Echo Dot and Tap devices employ Alexa.

Alexa has started talking finance — and banks, insurance companies, and investment firms are all listening.

Amazon’s voice-activated Echo may have started as a nifty gadget that provided weather updates and recited hit songs from 1985 in the soothing tones of Alexa, the company’s version of Siri. But Alexa is increasingly being programmed to take on more complex tasks of a virtual assistant and creeping into territory once reserved for bank tellers and insurance agents.

Want to pay a bill? Get insurance quotes? Or check your brokerage accounts? Alexa can do all that from the cylindrical-shaped Echo device on your kitchen counter or bedside table.

Advertisement

Last month, Boston-based Liberty Mutual programmed some of its insurance services onto the Echo, allowing consumers to locate a nearby insurance agent, get an estimate for auto insurance, or learn how to keep their auto and home premiums down.

Get Talking Points in your inbox:
An afternoon recap of the day’s most important business news, delivered weekdays.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Fidelity Investments is letting customers check their account balances by speaking with Alexa. Virginia-based Capital One earlier this year let its customers pay their mortgage and car loans using Alexa. And FIS, a Florida company that provides technology for hundreds of banks, is piloting similar Alexa-compatible technology across the country, including in Massachusetts, that it plans to release next year.

“We think it’s got a lot of potential,” said Doug Brown, a senior vice president at FIS. “This is a rapidly expanding ecosystem.”

While financial firms are starting with basic tasks, such as paying bills, the potential services that Echo and its ilk could eventually deliver are far-reaching, especially as security is tightened with voice-detection and other software, Brown said.

In the future, virtual assistants could remind consumers when the rent is due, warn against making a big purchase if there’s not enough money in an account, tell them if they qualify for a credit card offer, or advise them on how to avoid certain fees, Brown said. Banks provide some of these services with humans, but widespread use of in- home voice-activated devices could further accelerate branch closures, he said.

Advertisement

Financial firms are investing in voice-controlled technology on the bet that consumers will eventually prefer to speak commands instead of typing on a laptop.

As consumers install more Internet-connected devices in their homes to control lights, heating systems, and refrigerators, tying them into voice-activated devices such as Alexa will become more common, said Werner Goertz, a personal technologies research director for Gartner Inc., a technology consulting firm.

Car companies and appliance manufacturers are already linking their Internet-connected products to Alexa, which can lock the car or preheat the oven. Developers have created nearly 3,000 “skills,’’ similar to apps on mobile phones, for Alexa, according to Amazon.

And other technology companies are rushing to roll out voice-activated assistant devices to compete with Amazon’s. Last week, Google announced that it would start shipping its device called Google Home in early November. Several Massachusetts companies, including Bedford-based iRobot and Jibo, headquartered in Boston, are also developing robot home assistants that can understand conversational commands.

Goertz said inquiries have spiked from companies, including financial firms and health care providers, that are interested in tapping into the potential for voice-activated technology. For example, health companies see a potential for Echo and other devices to replace wearable emergency buttons for the elderly, allowing them to call out for help and describe in normal language their symptoms to paramedics, Goertz said.

Advertisement

Still, the voice technology is in its early stages, and these virtual assistants have more to learn about how people communicate.

Capital One found that Alexa didn’t realize that when consumers said “that’s all,” they were done. The device kept asking more questions, said Ken Dodelin, vice president for digital product management.

It’s also still learning to pick up cues in the inflection of a person’s voice to determine whether he or she is getting frustrated, Dodelin said.

As the technology behind Alexa matures and learns more about how people actually communicate, Dodelin expects these devices to be able to do even more.

For now, Dodelin and executives at other financial firms are testing how their customers respond to this new way of interacting with their bank, insurance company, or investment manager.

“We’re still in the early innings of this game for sure,” Dodelin said. “We continue to test and learn.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.