Voice could soon have a presence in UK digital banking, thanks to a new technology trial by high street bank NatWest.

NatWest is to begin trialling voice-controlled banking via Google Home smart speakers, allowing customers direct access to their accounts, including checking their balances and recent transactions. 

The system also sends information to the account holder’s smartphone. In the future, they may be able to transfer money and pay bills by voice commands, according to NatWest. 

The three-month trial, involving just 500 customers, is the first such foray into voice-controlled banking by a UK high street name, allowing customers to multitask and perhaps offering particular appeal to customers with visual or other disabilities.

To access their accounts via Google Home devices, customers will have to speak just two digits from a four-digit password aloud – introducing the risk of them or the smart speaker being overheard, the device being hacked, or the audio being intercepted by unscrupulous employees: a challenge for banking regulators and data security, protection, and transfer professionals.

Nevertheless, the move is designed to appeal to those time-poor customers who increasingly resist friction of any kind in their digital experiences.

The trial is a bold one for NatWest which, as part of the RBS group, has been beset by IT problems this decade. In 2012, for example, millions of customers found themselves locked out of their accounts during a failed system upgrade, for which the bank was fined £56 million. Further outages followed in 2013.

In 2015, RBS was hit by a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, while NatWest suffered more service and security incidents than any other bank in the last quarter of 2018, according to a report in the Telegraph.

There were 9.5 million smart speaker users in the UK in 2018, according to research from eMarketer, in a market dominated by Amazon with a 68 percent share. Google Home devices hold just 26 percent of the British market, said that report, with the gap set to narrow this year.

In the US, 76 million smart speakers were installed in homes at the end of June 2019, an increase of 10 million from December 2018, according to a report published this month by Consumer Intelligence Report Partners (CIRP).

The US market is also dominated by Amazon’s Alexa-powered range, which has a 70 percent share. Google has 25 percent, with Apple’s premium-priced range bringing up the rear on five percent.

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