The voice command payment revolution

By Michael Lloyd

"Alexa, please add diapers and dish soap to my Amazon shopping cart. And, Santander, tell me what's left in my checking account."

Telling inanimate objects to do our bidding isn't far-fetched -- it's already happening.

Voice recognition technology is poised to revolutionise the way consumers buy goods and services and conduct their personal online banking. While it's true that voice command platforms have had a pretty patchy track record, a new generation is now on the horizon that promises to be more efficient.

Tech giants such as Amazon, Google and Apple have been ploughing hundreds of millions of dollars into voice recognition platforms that may have applications in the payments and banking spaces, prompting many smaller firms to investigate how voice might play a part in their ecommerce operations. voice-recognition-technology

"Because both payment processors and marketers have always been focused on delivering the best customer experience with hassle-free payment options, we now have contactless payment technologies on both credit cards and smart devices," Liviu Arsene, senior e-threat analyst at anti-virus software firm Bitdefender, said in an emailed response to questions.

"The use of voice authentication for issuing payments is something that has been experimented with lately, but there's yet to be any clear indication of when - or if - it will be mass-market deployed."

Emerging voice technology in banking
In the US, Amazon's virtual assistant Alexa is leading the voice command e-commerce charge. The retail giant's Prime programme now lets members order items from the Amazon website simply by telling an Alexa-connected device what they want and when they want it. For instance, you could say, "Alexa, order more toilet paper," and the item would be queued for shipping without the consumer having to log onto the site.

Recently, Capital One partnered with Amazon to launch a "skill" for Alexa in the US that allows its customers to pay their credit card bills, check their balances and track their spending using voice commands. Although Alexa is not yet available in the UK, Lloyds Bank has already started to consider how integrating the voice recognition platform with its online banking services might help customers.

The fact that platforms such as Alexa can be embedded in a range of devices, coupled with the continuing growth of the Internet of Things (IoT), means that soon, voice recognition payment and banking services will be available in myriad everyday items.

Some European banks have been taking their own first steps into voice commands independently. Santander UK rolled out voice-assisted technology in the first quarter of 2016 for users of its iOS SmartBank app. For now, the app allows users to ask only a limited number of questions about single transactions, but the roll-out of a second iteration later in the year will let users service their accounts fully with voice commands alone. This is all part of a growing trend that some analysts have suggested could kill off traditional online banking in its current form.

In-store voice payments
Voice commands are also primed to disrupt in-store payments. Google has been testing a new mCommerce feature that allows consumers to walk up to a point of sale (POS) and say, "I'll pay with Google".

How does it work? The Google Hands Free app loaded onto the buyer's phone communicates with the POS via the device's NFC chip and supplies additional authentication information, including a picture of the purchaser, which is scanned by facial recognition software. The transaction is then processed using card details uploaded to the Hands Free app - just as with a mobile payment.

Separately, waiting staff and shop assistants may be alarmed to learn that a new robot designed by SoftBank, "Pepper", might soon be able to understand voice commands, as well as process payments, potentially putting their jobs under threat. Pepper uses voice recognition to take customers' orders and processes payments using MasterCard's MasterPass digital wallet. Though only available in its native Japan until July 2016, Pepper has now started to roll out to other regions.

Security risks
Like all emerging IoT solutions, voice commands may not be as secure as more mature technology. One example of how voice-activated tech could be an open invitation to hackers is noted in a 2016 study conducted by researchers at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. The academics found that it's possible to mangle voice commands in, say, a YouTube video so that a human cannot recognize them, but the computer can. If such a command is embedded in a viral video, it could be possible to control thousands of smartphones. However, the hack isn't 100% effective, and companies releasing new technologies are always working on improving security risks.

To protect your accounts, you should always use any technology with care, and be sure to download antivirus software on your mobile devices and computers. And always check your credit report and credit card statements for any accounts or transactions that you do not recognize.

And when the IoT becomes a part of our everyday lives, maybe sticking to one voice-activated assistant will make things simpler and avoid bedlam. Imagine Alexa, Pepper and all the other assistants confused as to whom you're speaking and who is supposed to be doing what.

See related: Protect your card details from smartphone malware; Calling all payment tech junkies: Emerging innovations gather steam

Published: 29 July 2016