08 Aug 2017 15:02 IST

Let bots do the shopping for you

Niki’s artificial intelligence-based chatbots help consumers shop for products and services

Though artificial intelligence (AI) may have become a buzz word for many entrepreneurs and has helped money pour into AI-fired start-ups, the market appeared to be getting a little crazy. Or so thought electrical engineering graduate from IIT Kharagpur, Sachin Jaiswal, co-founder of Niki.ai, a technology-focussed company. Having worked at Innovaccer, a Silicon Valley headquartered healthcare analytics company, Sachin knew that AI was proving to be a transformative tool, improving sales and optimising commercial operations, even as it continued to display its immense potential to disrupt and push the envelope for most, if not all industries.

“The AI industry has been really competitive with different companies coming up with newer technologies every other day,” says Sachin, who continues to see AI as an engine of economic development. “When we were thinking of starting up, we realised that there were various companies working with AI. However, most of these companies were trying to build AI to solve an infinite problem, which led to low accuracies and, therefore, lesser customer adoption,” he says, speaking of his decision to team up with three of his friends from IIT Kharagpur to start Niki.ai.

How it works

The company provides an AI-powered chatbot interface that helps consumers shop for products and services, and helps place orders on their behalf with partner businesses.

For businesses, it provides a plug and play technology that can be integrated on most operating systems and apps.

Sachin says, “the traditional ‘tap’ interface is not natural to humans. A new UI for each service and tonnes of taps for every single service makes the experience cumbersome. Compare this to the traditional offline method, which allows customers to get suggestions and is more instinctive, but is slow and inconvenient.”

Niki.ai decided to bridge the gap with a chatbot. The people at Niki.ai are of the firm opinion that conversations are a much more intuitive and natural way of transacting. However, building an AI system takes time and relevant data. The focus was on use-case, which is a methodology used in system analysis to identify, clarify and organise system requirements.

“When we started, we clearly decided to focus on use-case of commerce. We developed a roadmap, where we planned that once our work on use-case of commerce matures and reaches certain accuracy, we would diversify across other use-cases,” says Sachin.

Believing that AI has the potential to redefine commerce globally, the trio stuck to their mission. Raising money was a distant target. “We focus on building a value product first, before we started to worry about raising investment. Once we had something to show as a beta version, we got good feedback from users and mentors alike. We then raised a seed round from Unilazer Ventures in October 2015. There was a follow-up round in May 2016 by our existing investors Unilazer Ventures and Ratan Tata,” says Sachin.

Early days

Sachin started off his career as a Product Manager at Oracle, “building data driven products. I worked there for a year and then started my entrepreneurial journey by co-founding Innovaccer. I worked in the capacity of Vice-President-Business Development at Innovaccer.”

Starting from scratch at Innovaccer, Sachin says he helped “build various verticals of the company. The strategies that I devised were instrumental in significantly increasing the company’s resource utility. Today, the firm has 300 plus employees and stands strong in its sector.”

Gaining “diverse experience of four years, and in-depth understanding of the domain and various business functions,” Sachin ventured into Niki.ai in April 2015.

It was no walk in the park however. “Getting the AI bot (Niki) to understand the natural way people converse in India is a big challenge.

“The algorithms behind the whole ‘understanding and then respond accordingly’ part is pretty complicated, and makes use of the most sophisticated of research in artificial intelligence, Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning,” says Sachin.

The company’s “custom NLP models which are backed by conversational data of over two years” helps process complicated instructions from users. For instance, “if you tell Niki to book a seat in a night bus to Mumbai this Friday, she will get back to you instantly with recommendations that suit you best. We are still constantly innovating our models and algorithms though, to make Niki smarter in the sense she can understand and recommend better,” adds Sachin.

Regional language support

The next step is to add regional language support to the system, “which will further enable smooth and convenient communication with customers. We plan to integrate many more services on our platform so that for many of a consumer’s needs, Niki should be the first thing that strikes the mind. To facilitate and improve the experience for a mobile user, we are soon going to add the feature of voice communication in Niki,” says Sachin.

He says the focus is on the “chatbot SDK (Software Development Kit) to enable every business to sell smart with an AI. The SDK empowers brands to enable conversational commerce on their mobile and web apps. Post the SDK integration, brands can offer multiple services, which are built on Niki.ai’s custom NLP and Machine Learning technologies.”

Apart from the SDK, “we are also expanding our services and Niki will soon be your, stockbroker, insurance agent, travel planner, and can handle a host of other activities,” he adds.

Some experts suggest that bots will replace apps over the next five years.

Sachin smiles. “This means that all the work that is currently performed on multiple apps will be done on a single chat interface. The world is at the cusp of the next revolution, powered by AI. We want to ride high on this AI wave,” he says.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)

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