“A robot doesn’t need to be able to do everything”

Text: Roberto Stefàno | Photos: Markus Bertschi | Magazine: Homo digitalis – June 2018

#digital  #local  #analytic

With Twint, CEO Thierry Kneissler wants to vastly simplify the point-of-sale payment process and simultaneously accelerate the move towards digitalisation in Switzerland. He’s convinced that in the years ahead machines will make daily life ever-easier for human beings – but he can’t and doesn’t even want to envisage the day when they also develop emotions.

“I refuse to entertain the thought that at some point I could be talking to a robot just like I do with another person,” insists Thierry Kneissler. Nonetheless, the 47-year-old boss of mobile payment app provider, Twint, is convinced that man and machine will be cohabitating much more closely and intensively in the coming years. Already today, digital assistants replete with artificial intelligence have invaded our living rooms, even as robots are now accomplishing more and more tasks away from the factory floor. When in future AI and robotics technologies merge to an even greater extent, the possi­bilities are virtually limitless. “For many people – I’m thinking of those who live alone or are in real need of physical assistance – these machines will certainly be a blessing,” says Kneissler. But he’s quick to put that into perspective: “I do believe, though, that it will always be more – how should I say? – interesting to speak with other human beings.”

Countertrend to digitalisation

But there’s also a glimmer of hope to be discerned in his remark. After all, existential questions arise as technologies take on more and more human forms and characteristics: What actually defines a human being? How do we differ from these machines? Are emotions reserved solely for Homo sapiens? “I don’t think that a computer or mechanical man has to be able to do everything,” Kneissler points out. Robots should assist people, not be their ersatz. For that reason, he also expects that there will be a counterreaction to the seemingly relentless trend towards digitalising everything in everyday life – similar to the anti-globalisation movement that has manifested itself in people’s reawakened preference for locally produced goods. “The interpersonal dimension and social structures are likely to become more important again, a reset in which we consciously attempt to keep digitalisation and robots out of certain areas of our private life,” he believes.

“The interpersonal dimension and social structures are likely to become more important again, a reset in which we consciously attempt to keep digitalisation and robots out of certain areas of our private life.”

Customers should hardly realise they’re paying

But for all that, Kneissler’s own mission with Twint is actually to drive digitalisation in Switzerland and fundamentally change the way people go about things – at least when it comes to their payment habits. Because with his solution, payments are made via smartphone, money can be transferred directly to a counterparty regardless of location, and the app also facilitates e-commerce transactions. “In most dealings, a payment is due at some point,” explains the graduate in economics. And with Twint, this process should run so smoothly that the customer hardly even notices it. Take for example a visit to a restaurant: after a meal, guests should simply be able to leave the restaurant without having to stew in their own juice until the waitperson brings the tab. Not because they’re bill-dodging, but because the amount owed has already been paid automatically via Twint.

Thierry Kneissler has been CEO of Twint since 2014 and engineered a merger with its competitor Paymit in mid-2016. Earlier on, he pursued a career at PostFinance, where he held numerous management positions after joining the company in 2004. Now 47 years old, the Berner young boy studied economics at the University of Bern and University College Cork, Ireland, and earned an Executive MBA from the University of St. Gallen (HSG) in 2001. Kneissler is married and the father of two children aged ten and twelve.

Behavioural change takes patience

Technically, such an application is already available today. However, it will probably take some time before the app gains traction. First, the smartphone needs to become more widely recognised as a payment tool. There are already many people who use this new technology and integrate it into their daily lives. “Twint is clearly the leader here in Switzerland, with 800,000 registered users. But as always, the broad masses will only jump on the bandwagon once they get the feeling that everyone else is doing it that way,” says Kneissler. Until then, patience is needed.

By way of comparison, he gives the example of contactless payment with a credit card. In fact, this is merely a function that was added later on to an otherwise well-established means of payment, i.e. plastic. “More and more people are now paying by simply swiping their card along the side of the terminal instead of inserting it into the slot. However, this contrivance was launched already seven years ago – and in the first several years, the adoption rate was low,” says the Twint boss. Unlike in Asia or Scandinavia, it just takes longer in Switzerland for innovations to gain a foothold in the market.

Ambivalent attitude towards anonymity

The fact that innovative payment methods frequently meet with scepticism has mainly to do with concerns about security or the loss of anonymity. However, this hesitance is at odds with the behaviour of the local population in other matters. “Compared to foreign consumers, the number of Swiss who are members of a merchant’s loyalty programme is indeed large,” notes Kneissler. This type of data provides far deeper insight into one’s private life and personal proclivities than his mobile payment application ever could. And when it comes to social media, many users voluntarily relinquish their anonymity. “Just take a look at how people usually behave and it becomes clear that this scepticism is hardly warranted, especially since Twint consistently applies the security standards of Swiss banks,” he argues. “Of all mobile payment methods, Twint is the safest. This also applies to data protection, because with Twint you needn’t disclose highly personal data such as your credit card number and CVV code when transacting online.”

“Today’s high degree of mobility is a blessing as well a curse for me as a boss.”

No rest for the weary (almost)

On the whole, though, people seem to be quite amenable to digitalisation. The majority own a smartphone and have a private Internet connection. Things that used to take several hours to accomplish are now done in a few seconds. “But along with that, life has also become much faster-paced and hectic than ever before,” sighs the Twint CEO. People end up being reachable anywhere, anytime, and often forget to take a step back and question whether everything absolutely needs to be done immediately. “I try to draw the lines as best as possible,” says Kneissler. Nevertheless, the more tumultuous his day-to-day work becomes, the less he succeeds in doing so. Even during holidays he can’t let go completely. “I do my best to keep to a fixed schedule, and devote myself to work when duty calls,” he says. The father of two rejects constant availability. He also tries to instil this philosophy in his children. Evenings, the electronic gizmos stay in the kitchen. Hopefully.

With the Twint mobile payment app, users can instantly charge their bank account for transactions they conduct in e-commerce, at the checkout counter and via ATMs. Direct person-to-person money transfers are also possible with Twint. The app, which is offered by 65 Swiss banks, is the co-owned intellectual property of Switzerland’s six largest banks as well as financial infrastructure service provider SIX. With over 800,000 registered users, it is the most widely used payment app in Switzerland.


Mobility – a blessing and a curse

Work life without at least some aspect of digitalisation has become unimaginable these days – and Kneissler has put the paperless office into actual practice: thanks to his notebook and smartphone, he works from any location and no longer needs his own workplace with a nameplate on the door and a rubber tree plant in the corner. Like his other employees, he uses one of the free desks in the Bern offices of Twint situated in a former co-op creamery. Communication takes place via email, instant messenger or telephone conference – and much more frequently than before. However: “This high degree of mobility is a blessing as well a curse for me as a boss,” he says. For this reason, he tries to ensure that as many participants as possible are physically present at management board meetings. Managing decentralised teams requires a great deal of trust. Since there are fewer control possibilities due to the distances involved, 100 per cent faith in the reliability of the team is an absolute must. Accordingly, Kneissler is exceedingly thorough in the selection of partners with whom he wants to work.

Learning responsible comportment

All in all, Kneissler believes the advantages of digitalisation far outweigh the downsides – and those plus points will likely increase as time passes. Especially in terms of healthcare and mobility, he expects to see significant progress: “In 20 years, we’ll probably no longer have cars of our own, and this will have a considerable influence on the cityscape,” says the devoted public transport user. And ultimately, the leisure industry should also be a beneficiary as people gradually have more time to themselves thanks to digitalisation. “However, whether we use those extra hours for self-realisation or instead piddle them away in the social media space is an entirely different question,” he adds. As always, when something is new and habits change dramatically, people must first learn to deal with the novelty responsibly. “There will no doubt be excesses that need to be corrected,” he’s convinced. But one thing is clear to Kneissler: people won’t want to go back.

Thierry Kneissler
Short questions – short answers

Background image on smartphone:
Photo of Kneissler and his family ascending Mount Fuji early in the morning

Dream profession as a child:
“Pilot (but that dream faded quickly)”

Steps along the way:
“Primary/secondary school, high school, business studies. My interest in banking led to an initial job at a cantonal bank and then to Postfinance.”

First mobile phone:
“Sony Ericsson, a red model, relatively compact. I don’t recall the exact model, but I was one of the few who didn’t own a Nokia.”