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TECH IN 10: Data key to unlocking the power of AI

09:00am July 01 2024

AI concept design. (Getty)

For all the potential of artificial intelligence to transform the way we live and work, the technology is only as good as the data that supports it.

That’s the mantra Pieter Vorster, Westpac’s head of data platforms, carries with him in his work to harness the power of AI to improve the bank’s systems and processes. 

“It’s all about the data,” Vorster says in a podcast interview.

AI is already embedded in many of the tools we use in our everyday lives, from smartphones to the software we use at work, “but none of these can be really effective unless the data that feeds them is absolutely correct, accurate, and usable.”

In 2021, Westpac laid out a three-pillar data execution strategy to help unlock the potential of AI.

The first pillar was about strengthening data oversight, while the second put in place an operating system to formalise data management, but it’s the third pillar now underway that most excites Vorster.

“Pillar three is where we start thinking a lot more about the usability of AI and generative AI, and the application of machine learning in the day-to-day practices of the bank.”

One of those use-cases is what Vorster refers to as the “customer cortex”. Put simply, it’s about aggregating all the interactions the bank has with a customer to help enhance the service it can provide, as well as better protecting them against scams. 

For example, if a customer is contacting the bank more frequently than usual it might be a sign that they’re not happy with the service. If AI spots that pattern quickly, it gives the bank a better opportunity to address the customer’s concerns. 

Vorster is confident that Australia’s banking sector has the right policies and guardrails in place to ensure the responsible use of artificial intelligence. Still, in a broader sense he acknowledges that AI does have the potential to accelerate poor risk practices. 

“It’s all about using it responsibly,” he says. “Is it fair? Is it accurate? Is there a bias in the data? For example, if you use a data set that has been generated with a very specific gender perspective, it might not be applicable to other genders.”

Vorster is excited by the potential of AI to empower customers to make more informed financial decisions.

He sees a world in which individuals use their own AI bot which understands their finances and can interpret how they should invest and save. That information can then be plugged in to the bank’s AI bot, which can direct them to products and services that will help them achieve their financial goals. 

“The future for us is that the work we do with our colleagues and for our customers can be so much richer if you can become an expert at almost any topic you want to engage with.”

James Thornhill was appointed as editor of Westpac Wire in May 2022. Prior to joining the bank, he was a business and financial journalist with more than two decades of experience with international newswires. Most recently, he was a resources correspondent for Bloomberg, covering the mining and energy sectors, and previously reported on a broad range of topics from economics and politics to currency and bond markets. Originally from the UK, he’s had stints working in London, New York and Singapore, but is now happily settled in Sydney.

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