Paytm now wants to go into digital banking with voice recognition

Mumbai,Nov7:Paytm now has 150 million digital wallets, and big online shopping firms have all either acquired digital payments companies or incubated their own. But Paytm has a stickiness that others find it hard to match.For years now, among millions of users, the company has acquired a solid reputation and loyalty by making routine digital payments such as mobile recharge, utility bills, DTH and broadband payments and now even school and college fees, incredibly easy. When you save the consumer’s time, you are giving them money. Add to it a layer of attractive cashbacks, and you have the winning Paytm formula that Sharma is hoping will grow into a big part of India’s digital payments infrastructure.

Being proven right is one thing, but starting an ecommerce business nearly sank Paytm. Unlike the payments business, the online shopping play burns a lot of cash. So in January of 2015, Paytm was left with just enough cash to run another month. Apart from depleted reserves and surpluses, Sharma had also exhausted the money he borrowed pledging his shares. The runway really was short at this point.

Chinese online shopping giant Alibaba’s payments unit Alipay took a 25% equity in Paytm in February 2015, averting a crisis. In September this year, Paytm raised more money, and secured a $5 billion valuation. Now some view India’s high stakes e-commerce battle as eventually boiling down to one between Amazon and Alibaba, which has invested in Snapdeal and Paytm.

Paytm Payments Bank is going to authenticate transactions using voice as a unique biometric signature. In effect, this means you can walk into any establishment that is a ‘Paytm ka ATM’ and ask for money. And when it asks for authentication, the customer will get a call on their phone, and they just have to say a pre-set pass phrase, like “My name is Meena.”

“Your voice is as unique a signature as iris or fingerprints,” says Sharma, adding that the technology works even if you have a cough or cold. It works in any language.

What about false negatives and false positives, which can wreck the bank’s reputation?

Sharma says it’s adequately robust and like any new technology, keeps getting better.

Paytm is working with another company to deploy the technology. He shows me a video demo on YouTube. Is an acquisition on the cards? “Nothing, nothing,” he says, and I’m convinced it’s one of those denials that confirm the story.

A bank where authentication is as easy as speaking to a teller, with one million touch points. What it can do to universalize banking and expand the reach of the formal economy is tremendous.

Sharma says he wants the experience as close as possible to a private banking experience.

“Say you are a customer of this large Swiss bank and you are in New York from India and you need some cash. What do you do? You walk in, and say hey I need some cash. The teller will ask you for your passport, and they will look you up, and they will ask you how much you want. And that’s it. This is going to be just like that.”

There is another element to this speech thing—it follows the arc of technology, where it eventually seeks to approximate a human interface.

“Computing went from a large room to desktop to pocket. Displays went from VGA to XGA to retina display. What is happening is that everything is getting more humanized. Storage went from storage sets to optical drives to flash drives to disappearing in the cloud. Computing has now vanished from the pocket into the environment. That means technologies such Alexa. So computing and the capability of technology starts from a large, bulky experience and becomes magical when it is literally in the air. That’s why cloud is a really powerful word. The bank, the financial services and the deposits payments have to become just like that. I sit here and say that I’ll pay it and that’s it.”

He intends to let millions of Indians withdraw cash out of thin air. I can’t wait to watch this technology in action.