Aarthi is the Global Head of Trade Operations Product at Standard Chartered, which processes more than 36 million trade documents every year. Standard Chartered worked with IBM to co-create the Trade AI Engine, which uses IBM Watson, IBM Datacap and IBM Optical Character Recognition to speed up review and approval times and to improve the bank’s controls and audit posture.

What was the business opportunity you sought to address by using AI?
Standard Chartered is a strong and crucial link in the chain of trade that links organizations, facilitating and financing businesses and collaboration among them. In the process, we deal with tons of data, the authenticity of which is critical to ensure that this chain is safe and secure. However, the centuries-old business of trade continues to be manual and labor-intensive. The bank shoulders an important responsibility to fulfill—to clients, to regulators and to the community. Through AI, we sought to harness technology to manage this data intelligently and securely, strengthening compliance monitoring and transparency to stakeholders.

How does Watson fit into your overall business?
Our Trade AI Engine, built on a combination of Watson, IBM Datacap and IBM Optical Character Recognition, converts paper documents, which are unstructured and voluminous, into machine-readable formats. It then learns and improves the accuracy rate for subsequent documents. Traditional documentary trade requires millions of data elements in paper-based, unstructured documents—often issued by various companies—to be reviewed through a largely manual process. With the Trade AI Engine, this time-consuming and high-risk process is now significantly automated.

What has your company achieved with Watson?
The use of Watson has been game-changing for us. Our innovative solution allows the bank to handle high volumes of diverse back-office tasks with greater efficiency and accuracy, thus offering a more seamless trade processing experience for clients. The project has been a testament to the collaboration between man and machine to enhance service. While AI intelligently handles the review process, we can focus our human touch on structuring complex deals customized for our clients, while also keeping stringent checks on our control environment.

What makes an AI project successful?
First, you have to believe in the vision. We were an early adopter of AI to enhance service in the trade finance industry. The Trade AI Engine was “made-to-measure,” a bespoke solution for the unique needs of our industry. This meant changing the way things have been done for more than 150 years, with no example in history to look to. Believing in our vision was the only way to keep going. Second, a learning mindset is crucial. We have fallen along the way, but the key was to admit the mistakes, learn from them, pick ourselves up and keep going. The journey continues, and we are continuously enhancing our solution based on the lessons we are still learning and the feedback we are getting. Third, it’s important to recognize that technology is a key differentiator for clients and banks. Our biggest challenge was the varied levels of exposure to digitization among the players in a single chain of trade finance. With the Trade AI Engine, we’ve been able to transform the way we process our transactions and show our clients a visible benefit in the service they experience. 

What advice would you share with others who are considering using AI?
AI is an experience, a journey which cannot be achieved overnight. It’s a seed that needs to be planted, and the branches will slowly start growing. If at any point impatience kicks in and you stop nurturing the tree, thinking it’s taking too long to grow, then it simply withers away. This is a space that’s still relatively unknown and not ventured by many. There may not be ready examples to turn to, so the path is unknown and lonely. I’d say the key is to have faith in the science of machine learning and AI, and always be ready to adapt and evolve.

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
Never settle, build exponential solutions for the future and do the right thing, especially for clients. If you stick to these core principles, you can achieve anything that you set your mind to.

What advice would you give your younger self?
Believe in yourself, as you are stronger than you give yourself credit for. We are our own hardest critics, and that can be a great motivator. At the same time, it’s important to know one’s worth.

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