By Anna Irrera
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Wells Fargo & Company (WFC.N) is testing a "chatbot", an automated program that can communicate with the bank's customers on Facebook's (FB.O) messaging platform to give them information on their accounts and help them reset their passwords.
The U.S. bank said on Tuesday that it is piloting the virtual assistant with several hundred employees, and plans to extend testing to a few thousand customers later this spring.
Wells Fargo's chatbot will use artificial intelligence to respond to natural language messages from users, such as how much money they have in their accounts, and where the nearest bank ATM is.
Chatbots have risen in popularity in finance and other industries over the past few months because recent improvements in artificial intelligence have made them better at interacting and interpreting human language.
Banks and other financial firms are hopeful chatbots can be used to provide better and continuous customer service at the fraction of the cost of large call centers populated by humans.
French bank Societe Generale (SOGN.PA), for example, recently revealed that it was working with startup Personetics Technologies to develop chatbots that could answer queries about equity funds in its Romanian banking unit.
Money transfer startup TransferWise in February launched a Facebook chatbot that enables customers to send money to friends and family internationally from Facebook Messenger.
In March U.S. bank Capital One Financial Corp (COF.N) launched a chatbot named "Eno", which can answer questions on their recent account balances or help pay off credit card bills.
Wells Fargo's chatbot, which does not yet have a name, comes as the bank ramps up its development of artificial intelligence-based technology.
In February it created a dedicated AI team to create technology, such as the new chatbot, that can help the bank provide more personalized customer service through its bankers and online.
"AI technology allows us to take an experience that would have required our customers to navigate through several pages on our website, and turn it into a simple conversation in a chat environment," said Steve Ellis, head of Wells Fargo's Innovation Group, where the company's AI team is based.
Facebook opened up its Messenger app to developers to create chatbots in April 2016 in a bid to expand its reach in customer service and enterprise transactions.
(Reporting by Anna Irrera; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)