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Money20/20: reflections on day one – AI

Las Vegas. A city where money talks like nowhere else on earth, even if often does so for less than entirely respectable reasons. As to whether this makes it a wonderfully inspired, or a rather inappropriate, venue for Money20/20, I’m undecided.

Nevertheless, once one gets past the sensory overload that is Las Vegas, Money20/20 is undoubtedly one of the biggest and best events in the financial services calendar, able to attract presenters of the highest caliber. Day one opened with a deep-dive into the on-trend topic of artificial intelligence (AI). The first speaker of the day was Ray Kurzweil, a technologist who has specialized in AI for decades. His wide-ranging presentation covered everything from early achievements in the field to the latest developments in multi-layer neural nets.

He noted that the increase in the size of the human neocortex, around 2 million years ago, was not only responsible for our great intellect, but until recently gave us a huge advantage over computers: while AI algorithms need a billion datapoints or more to drive meaningful insights, humans can make effective decisions from as little as one or two examples. However, this advantage is being eroded by the ability of the latest algorithms to generate, and learn from, their own datasets, as effectively demonstrated by Google’s self-learning Go-playing program.

Finally, Kurzweil mused upon how molecular technology in the form of nanobots may ultimately allow human brains to directly interface with the cloud, which will effectively enlarge the neocortex beyond all recognition. The timescale for this somewhat unsettling prospect? As early as the 2030s.

Matt Wood of Amazon Web Services outlined how the tech giant is using machine learning and AI to help its clients achieve better outcomes. Capital One, for example, is using Alexa to allow customers to pay their bills and check their balances through voice commands. Liberty Mutual is employing AI-powered chatbots to screen customer enquiries before routing them to the appropriate human advisors, and AON has managed to reduce its risk assessment procedures from 10 days to just 10 minutes, using AWS technology.

The final, and most entertaining, speaker of the morning session was Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple. Among his observations were that the amount of memory needed to store a single song once cost over $1m, and, just as earlier technological revolutions had replaced humans for physical labor, the current AI revolution will lead to machines supplanting humans for many thought-based tasks. However, he was keen to say that AI will not fully supersede humans for a very long time, as there are many major developmental challenges to overcome.

The overwhelming consensus of the session’s speakers was that AI will have a hugely beneficial impact upon society. Firms will be able to operate more efficiently, consumers will benefit from improved outcomes, and humans will be freed from more menial tasks to concentrate on what they are best at.

By Daoud Fakhri, Prinicipal Retail Banking Analyst

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