Facebook takes its money transfer business global

The London-based startup TransferWise on Tuesday launched a bot on Facebook's chat platform, allowing users of the largest social media network to send money internationally. 

Eric Risberg/AP/File
CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about the Messenger app during the Facebook F8 Developer Conference in March 2015 in San Francisco. Messenger users now can send money internationally from within the app through a chatbot from TransferWise.

Facebook users in participating countries can now send money internationally from within the social media giant's Messenger application.

The London-based startup TransferWise on Tuesday launched a program on Facebook's chat platform that uses an artificially intelligent "chatbot" to process wire transfer requests from users. The newest feature, which expands Facebook’s existing domestic money transfer service, highlights the increasingly crowded landscape of digital payments and the tech company’s increasingly global goals.

Our greatest opportunities are now global ... [and] our greatest challenges also need global responses,” Facebook founder and chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg wrote in an open letter last Thursday. “Progress now requires humanity coming together not just as cities or nations, but also as a global community.” 

Tuesday’s announcement has brought that vision one step closer, as the new integration enables Facebook users to send and receive money to friends and family between the United States, Canada, Britain, Australia, and the European Union – all through the familiar Messenger program.

Chatbots are computer programs that are designed to engage in human-like conversations with users, much like Apple's Siri or Amazon's Alexa, but in a text-based format. Facebook users can already order Domino's pizza via a Messenger-based chatbot. But TransferWise's automated program promises more complex levels of customer service, from completing wire transfer transactions to sending alerts when regularly used currencies hit favorable rates.

But, as anyone who has played with Siri or Alexa knows, conversational computing has not quite hit full stride with human conversations. And some digital banking analysts say the financial companies should be cautious in embracing the new technology.  

"If you are buying a pizza and don’t get exactly what you ordered or the chatbot didn’t understand the request, that’s not such a big deal," Aurelie L’Hostis, an analyst at Forrester Research, told Bloomberg Tuesday. "But the stakes are too high in financial services if the bot doesn’t understand the transaction well."

But Facebook and TransferWise are banking on the fact that technology – and the programmers behind it – will rise to the occasion and propel both companies to the forefront of a burgeoning field.

Transferwise, which is valued at more than $1 billion, currently sees a total of roughly $1 billion in transactions from more than 50 countries on its website each month. Hoping to adapt to work with other popular chat services, the company hopes the service would be ultimately extended to other countries, Scott Miller, head of TransferWise’s global partnerships, told Reuters.

Facebook's investment in chatbots underscores the social media giant’s vision of “a decentralized and personalized future” that is built on artificial intelligence, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last week. With advancements in interacting ability, chatbots have become increasingly popular among enterprise technology in recent years, as they help businesses reduce customer service operation costs.

Facebook in April opened up its Messenger App to developers to create chatbots, hoping to expand its reach in customer service and enterprise transactions. Since then, digital payment companies and banks, such as Azimo – rival of TransferWise – Paypal, Visa, Mastercard, and China-based Alipay all have payment bots on Messenger.

These integrations are all part of Facebook's grand plan to make Messenger a multifaceted channel, amid a trend of consumers consolidating the number of apps they use. Analysts say such a move follows what pioneer WeChat has done in recent years, as the popular Chinese messaging service, which has more than 800 million users, offers a chat-based payment system.

“It’s a move away from using native applications to something else,” Gartner research director Jessica Ekholm, told TechCrunch. “Consumers are getting less interested in using applications.... People are spending more time with the apps that they’ve already got."

This report includes material from Reuters.

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