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Trouble Talking About Money? Try Talking To This Robot.

Paul Flahive

Cash. Moolah. Loot. You might not know it but those colloquialisms for money can really throw a machine for a loop.

USAA launched a pilot program Wednesday allowing customers to use Amazon's popular smart-home device, Alexa, to talk turkey about their accounts and their spending.  

"Alexa, how much have I spent on gas?" asks Gualberto Camacho, USAA's Strategic Innovation Director.

"You've spent $20.19 on gas stations, oil and gas over the last three months," says the disembodied voice of the cylindrical speaker known as Amazon's Alexa.

The smart-home device can control everything from your thermostat to your lights, and now because of the work between USAA labs and the voice recognition company Clinc, Alexa can talk to you about your bank accounts and spending habits.

"What about restaurants?" asks Camacho. 

"You've spent $98.62 in the last three months," says Alexa.

If these figures for gas and restaurants seem low, that is because Alexa is currently communicating with a dummy account set up for this demonstration.    

Darrius Jones is Vice President of USAA Labs. He oversees this project, and is also a guinea pig, having hooked Alexa up to his own 10 accounts months ago. He says the big revolution here is the ability for customers to communicate with Alexa in natural human speech rather than have to learn special commands. 

"After you start interacting, you start to see that people use words interchangeably. Some people may use cash, some people may use money, some people use loot," says Jones.

But it is far more than just synonyms and slang. The skill is about logic too. If you ask about your checking account and the fine details, then ask "What about savings?" Alexa has to be able to reason that you are still talking about your accounts, and that you are asking about your balance. 

Jones compares it to a tree.  You go down one branch, the checking branch, and rather than having to back up the tree to the bank trunk, you jump to the end of another branch, the savings branch.

One big impact Jones sees is making an uncomfortable conversation about money more comfortable.

"Alexa doesn't judge you," Jones says.  

So if you ask Alexa if you have $50 for dinner out that night, it won't tell you if you can afford it or not, but it will tell you your remaining balance, helping you make spending decisions.

"I'll give you an example. I did not realize how much I spent last month on restaurants. We happened to be on vacation, and traveling, but I spent a significant amount on eating out," he says.

A fact, once illuminated by Alexa, led him to tell the kids they're eating in this week.

Now as many as 400 USAA members can sign up for the pilot at the USAA website. If it works and people like it, they will role it out publicly later.

Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org