Russian Banking Giant Sber Sheds Finance For Tech, Debuts Smart Display and Voice Assistant With Multiple Personalities
One of Russia’s largest banking institutions is transforming into a tech company focused on smart home technology. Sberbank, renamed Sber, is launching a flagship smart display called the SberPortal and the SberBox TV set-top streaming device to inaugurate the new approach. The new devices are powered by the three personalities of Sber’s new Salute voice assistant. Sber is pouring its considerable resources into the pivot to tech, adding a major new player to an already rapidly heating up smart device and voice AI market in Russia.
The SberPortal and the SberBox, sold under the auspices of the SberDevices team, offer features common to similar devices worldwide, albeit with a new voice assistant to handle commands. But, none of those other companies had been one of Russia’s biggest financial firms for almost two centuries. Very deep pockets back the sudden metamorphosis of the 179-year-old company. The company’s market value of around $67 billion and more than $400 billion in assets as of a few months ago supports business shifts even when they are this drastic. It’s also safe to say the company won’t face any insurmountable regulatory roadblocks either. The Russian government holds a one-share majority of Sber’s stock. Sber has been upping its technological investments significantly this year, but the complete revision of the company’s business model is almost without precedent. Sber’s urge to imitate existing tech giants is evident right down to the way it hosted a virtual event called SberConf to showcase its new products.
“Every company wants to expand the number of points of contact with its client. Virtual assistants are the next generation channel that can be integrated virtually anywhere: into a smart speaker at home, restaurant, or a workplace in a taxi seat, into headphones, into a TV in a hotel room, and more,” SberDevices CEO Konstantin Kruglov said in an interview with vc.ru, translated from Russian. “We can be useful in very diverse aspects of a user’s life. We don’t view consumer devices as an income flow, we are not a vendor. Smart devices for us are an investment in a new customer interaction channel.”
One element that does make the SberPortal and SberBox stand out is the Salute voice assistant supporting them. The voice assistant is quite advanced in some ways, despite being so new. Sber claims it can call and make appointments with doctors and barbers by itself when asked; a feature Google Duplex has barely begun to roll out. Sber is also encouraging third-party developers to add voice apps to its new SmartMarket platform that SberPortal users can then access, offering a revenue-sharing agreement to those that do so.
“It is clear that the assistant is becoming one of the central access points and unites the Sber devices ecosystem around the user,” Russian artificial intelligence developer Just AI founder Kirill Petrov commented to Voicebot. “There are very interesting trends — the possibility to shop while watching a film, for example, to see clothes and other items and immediately purchase them. This technology already exists, and it is necessary to see how it works in this particular case. The key point here is not that this is a technological breakthrough. The most important thing here is to make it as user-friendly as possible, as accessible as possible.”
“In real life, users communicate with different people: some are pleasant, some are not, they choose friends, comrades, a spouse, an assistant.”
The most unusual aspect of the voice assistant might be the three different voices available to users. Sber has given each of the virtual assistants a thumbnail personality profile using performances by voice actors to synthesize the AI’s responses, but ‘Sber,’ ‘Joy,’ and ‘Athena’ can all do the same things, despite their different tones. Users say Salute before stating the name of the voice they prefer to awaken the one they want to interact with.
“In real life, users communicate with different people: some are pleasant, some are not, they choose friends, comrades, a spouse, an assistant,” Kruglov said. “It seemed natural to allow users to choose from a group of assistants: each character of the “Salute” family will adapt to the user, but in its way.”
Sber doesn’t have the market to itself in Russia. The limited penetration of Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant doesn’t matter as much when there are domestic options. Tinkoff Bank’s Oleg voice assistant and Mail.Ru’s Marusya AI both recently found new homes in smart speakers from their respective makers. Sber’s biggest rival may be search giant Yandex and its Alice voice assistant. Along with a smart speaker, Yandex recently added Alice to its smart TV platform. That just continued Yandex’s ongoing addition of new features for Alice like the ability to pay at restaurants, make bets on sports, and critique art. The company also recently partnered with Chinses tech firm Huawei to support its Celia voice assistant in Russia using Alice’s platform. Kruglov has deep knowledge of the Russian voice AI tech market in general, but especially Alice, having helped developed the first Yandex smart speaker. If Sber can convince even some of its 100 million banking clients in Russia to start using its devices, the swerve in business may pay off, but that might be difficult at least at first.”
“The population of Russia is huge, and [Sber] will take a long time to penetrate people’s homes. A smart display will not be cheap and not available to everyone either. Therefore, Sber will take time to enter the market,” Petrov said. “At the same time, there are Yandex and Alice, which, in fact, already has several key contact points in this market, where they dominate.”