This was my first time attending the Singapore FinTech Festival and I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the conference, chatting with colleagues, listening to sessions, and visiting booths. It was great to see financial services innovations in this part of the world which tends to be a leader as compared to my western centric view and experience of finance.
The conference was started in 2016 by the Monetary Authority of Singapore and has been held every year since going virtual during the pandemic. It is the largest attended financial services conference in the world with over 60,000 attendees walking the conference halls over the three days.
This year’s conference could have easily changed its name to the Singapore AI FinTech Festival. From the numerous times it came up in sessions to the many booths and booth talks that AI came up was amazing. In fact, the conference t-shirt’s slogan on the back read “AI’m not a robot.” I am not able to compare to previous shows, but I would expect that AI replaced crypto and DEFI and has much broader implications and longevity.
AI is all the rage
The conference kicked off with a keynote from Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director at the IMF. She spent most of her presentation talking about central bank digital currencies (CBDGs). We are still a little way off from it being mainstream but the continual theme of CBDGs is that countries are testing it, and it will create a more inclusive financial system, spur innovation, and benefit cross border payments.
After the opening keynote on came the AI landslide. The next presenter was the President of Singapore and he started us down the AI path. He gave lots of interesting AI stats. He thought all industries will be impacted by AI but FSI more so. He acknowledged that AI causes job displacement fears but that 80% of jobs have 10% work that AI can impact. We must encourage responsible use of AI although we are all early in the game to regulate it. AI can impact algorithms, deep fakes, social media, and the like so we must not allow further polarization we must keep an open mind.
When talking about the mind a common theme though from presenters was the notion of intelligence quotient (IQ) versus emotional quotient (EQ). A presenter quoted Sam Altman of OpenAI claiming he said that the price of AI will decrease intelligence by a factor of 1 million. That is kind of frightening to hear but in the highly regulated financial services industry EQ can be a deal maker or breaker.
Because AI won’t replace people from delivering service. People still prefer the human touch. An example of Maybank was given on how AI has had a huge impact to reducing call center wait time from 4 minutes down to 30 seconds. They stated there is a delicate balance between human touch and the digital touch, but that EQ of people might be more important then ever. People do business with people not machines.
AI governance is needed and there is a need for regulators to create frameworks for AI. Financial institutions must build their frameworks and models now and be ready when regulations come their way to be able to show how they operate.
The AI industry maturity index was shown, and it listed banking and insurance as some of the lowest industries in projected in 2024 when it comes to maturity. The highly regulated industries such as financial services and healthcare are towards the bottom. Coincidentally while I was at the conference, Cisco released its own AI Readiness Index. Cisco’s report highlights companies’ preparedness to utilize and deploy AI, showcasing critical gaps across key business pillars and infrastructures that pose serious risks for the near future. It certainly makes sense that highly regulated industries are towards the bottom.
The main stage had impressive crowds for many of the distinguished speakers the aforementioned Kristalina Georgieva, Ajay Banga, President of the World Bank, Thomas Dohmke CEO of Github, and Bill Winters CEO of Standard Chartered, by far the most highly attended session was the one from the CEO of Ant Financial, Eric Jing. Unfortunately, I had a conflict during his session but the fact that this session was the most crowded in my opinion says something about Ant. I of course did visit their huge booth.
FinTechs are banks’ best friends. Even Big Tech taking over some of the bank’s functions is good. It is making everyone better and innovative. Still people place faith and trust in financial institutions as evidenced by lack of crypto and defi hype that has now been drowned out. We certainly don’t want, and can’t that type of impact with AI which is why FIs are treading more careful. We see a lot more innovation with non-customer facing AI projects now.
The final presentation was from Ajay Banga, and he wants to continue the World’s Bank democracy access to financial services. Coming from the private sector he understands the needs and demands of shareholders. He says that there is enough money on banks balance sheets t help fix ESG but that the returns needed aren’t there. That is where he hopes the World Bank will be can play a role. Definitely a refreshing message to end on.
The convention center was divided into technology, founders, ESG, regulation, and talent halls each with their own stages. There were tons of booths and as you moved further away from the technology section the fewer banks there were. Still, it was very interesting to see some bank brands especially that are not in the US but are massively huge. Yet banks are banks so seeing what new technology is out there was exciting.
Walking the halls as noted AI was mentioned in a lot of booths and in many of booth talks. There was even one booth create your very own multi-lingual AI Avatar. Of course, I had to give it a try. It was neat and of course scary at the same time.
As a former credit card product manager and payments marketer I was most intrigued by the Mastercard booth. For starters it was the only double decker booth at the conference. Once you got past the height of the booth it was the “car” tucked into it that was most interesting. It was a modified car to show how Mastercard is working on the connected car to make payments work from the comfort of your car. I’ve read about that for a while but it was neat to see this demo and how it is embedded into the car. It works like a card on file that we are accustomed to but how it interacts with gas stations, toll booths and even just as a personal assistant was cool.
The connected car made me think of Cisco’s own Webex for Auto strategy. In our version, hybrid work and the realities of life come to together for effective in-car communication as for some, cars are almost their main office. Cisco is working with manufacturers such as Audi, Ford and also Mercedes-Benz.
There were booths showing off their payments and wallets. Amazon was showcasing their blockchain wallet and giving out free garb from it, but alas I couldn’t do it with my western device. Even a few booths, such as Visa and DBS, were showing off the metaverse. It seems like slow adoption and uptake on the use cases for the metaverse yet something to keep an eye on.
I appreciated the soundbite from Ravi Menon, Managing Director of Monetary Authority of Singapore, the host of the conference, “Everything we do in FinTech must have a larger purpose. FinTech is more importantly about solving real-world problems, about improving people’s lives, about promoting a more inclusive society, about securing a sustainable plant for the future.” And as the industry moves forward AI ready or not Cisco is here to help make it possible.