Rise of the Bots

Have you ever had a conversation with a robot?  This month we have been experimenting with a new tool for entrepreneurs in Myanmar that allows them to talk to a friend about business.  Only this friend is not real, he is a Bot.  Maung Sa Yin Kaing (Mr. Finance), as he has been named, talks to young people interested in learning about business and finances, and he teaches them about loans, savings, budgets and more.

This month we had a chance to create the basic bot, as well as to test it out with a group of students from Singapore University of Technology and Design.  These students took Mr. Finance out in the real world and tested it with some of our entrepreneurs and a random sampling of people in the local markets.  We learned a lot through the experience and are excited to continue developing the tool.  It is exciting to take what we’ve learned over the last several years and turn it into tools that can scale in size.  This Bot can be accessed by anyone with Facebook, and allows them to learn even if they can’t leave a shop to come to a meeting or event. 

With the huge popularity of Facebook in Myanmar, we are hopeful that this new Bot can make a real difference.  Now we just have to make sure it doesn’t become self-aware and try to kill all humanity. (Kidding.)

Microfinance institutions care about financial education, but they can’t do much about it. MFIs rely on volume. They operate on a shoe-string budget. Margins are tight. This means anything they do needs to involve few staff with lots of customers. Their financial bottom line is key.

But entrepreneurship doesn’t really work that way. It requires critical thinking and the ability to respond to a multitude of potential problems. It cannot be reduced to a series of lectures. Financial Literacy involves abstract concepts, and is usually future-centric — not a problem that can be solved with a flip chart and one-way communication.

This approach simply will not work for Myanmar. Millions of people are coming online for the first time, having never seen a laptop or desktop computer in their lives. Mobile phones, and especially smart phones, are most often the first interaction Myanmar people are having with the Internet. And in most cases, Facebook is the Internet.

Maung Sa Yin Kaing can tell stories. He can nudge individual users with well-timed reminders. He can learn user behavior and prompt the user with suggestions for problems they are facing in their businesses. And he is on your phone!

Read more of Matt’s article on Mr. Finance here.