A bunch of startups is using tech to make everyday tasks much easier. One can book flights and buy mobile phone or insurance plans, simply by using a messaging app and chatting with a robot.
Remember JARVIS, ‘Iron Man’ Tony Stark’s intelligent assistant who not only controls everything in Stark’s house but was also his closest friend. Some thing similar, far from that powerful yet, is available now to more ordinary folks. They are called chatbots, computer programs that can have automated text conversations with users using artificial intelligence (AI) and natural language processing. And, as the world moves increasingly from social networks to messaging apps, a slew of Indian entrepreneurs are developing that technology to deliver a host of services. Consider this: if you are looking to buy a shoe, and if a shoe brand has enabled itself to work with a chat interface, a chatbot could allow you to use that interface to chat with the bot (short for internet robot), it would understand your requirements, offer you an appropriate selection of shoes, and you could then place an order and pay for it right there.
The segment got a shot in the arm when Facebook Messenger opened up to bots in April. WhatsApp has also announced plans to open up for businesses. “Messenger has 1 billion users. The benefit of integrating a bot on Messenger is that it is a hassle free experience, requiring no registration,” said Nitin Babel, co-founder of Niki.ai, a startup in the chatbot space. Arihant Jain of Joe Hukum, a bot building startup, adds that with large companies opening to bots, a community of sorts is beginning to develop.
Chatbots are expected also to provide enormous value at the workplace, where they could reduce user effort and error in tedious tasks. For example, when a form has to be filled out with data in the correct fields and properly formatted – like in say medical, insurance or financial forms – it’s much more convenient to answer a bot’s questions and let it handle the rest.
Chatbots can also manage complex tasks that require cross-referencing information and arriving at useful conclusions for the user. A traveling family could ask a bot to “Find a child-friendly restaurant within the next 5 km,” and the bot could deliver that, along with directions and ratings.
Beerud Sheth’s Gupshup, one of the earliest messaging platforms, took a pivot in 2016 to gupshup.io, a platform that provides key tools required to build bots for different kinds of audiences. For Vinay Kumar Sankarapu and his fellow IIT researcher Deekshith Marla, it was `informationgeddon’ that pushed them to start Arya.ai.”Data can be in the form of a blog, conver sation, excel sheets or images. How does one sort through all this and pull out only what is relevant,” asks Sankarapu. Arya.ai, which helps sectors such as banking and healthcare to simply processes, became last year the first Indian startup to be selected by Paris&Co, a French innovation agency, as one of 21 companies globally that do standout innovations.
Gurgaon based Joe Hukum started as a concierge service platform but Jain and cofounder Ajeet Singh Kushwaha, soon felt that the opportunity may be greater in serving businesses. “Every business today understands the power of chat. Of 100 chats, 80 are predictable and can be automated. For this 80%, a chatbot with the right rules with an added personality , if it is consumer facing, can be built,” said Jain.
Early adopters include e-com, travel, banking
Among the early adopters of bots are travel, e-commerce and banking companies, thanks to the repeat value of transactions, the large number of customers and daily use on these platforms. Flipkart is known to be investing in bots.
GoHero.AI, founded by Snehal Dhruve and Bineet Desai, is a personal travel con cierge powered by AI. Available across nine platforms, including Facebook Mes senger, Skype and Telegram, one can use it to make flight, hotel and taxi bookings.
The founders intend to look at sectors such as finance and education once they have mastered travel.
For Aloke Bajpai and Rajnish Ku mar’s Gurgaon-based ixigo, 30 million data points are powering its latest of fering, ixibaba, a personal travel as sistant. ixibaba will not only tell you everything you need to plan a trip but also give you real time infor mation on weather, travel routes, flight timings, train sta tus and more.
In banking, Kotak Mahindra, Axis Bank, UBS are all known to be testing chatbots. ICICI recently announced the use of software robotics. “A machine learning-based chatbot remembers every customer inter action and also has all the context and relevant data with it to answer. It is often able to predict the questions the customer is going to ask,” said Senthil Nayagam, CTO of FixNix, a Chennai-based startup that is working with Swiss banking major UBS on chatbots.
Lenskart uses bots built by Joe Hukum for order tracking, query logging and assisted product discovery . At Healthians.com, a `test at home’ service startup, bots are contributing to almost 12% of bookings that comes from the website. “Chatbots allow us to focus the customer on what is relevant and automate everything else. Even in the beta stage, there is already a segment of users who find chatbots to be more inviting than the normal booking channel,” said Anuj Mittal, co-founder of Healthians.com At logistics firm Safexpress, Joe Hukum’s bots are being used for internal processes. “Starting with tracking of waybills (document issued by a carrier giving details and instructions relating to the shipment of a consignment of goods), we will be evolving this technology to our social media and other channels. These have helped us save manpower,” said the Safexpress spokesperson.
Will chatbots make apps redundant?
That’s a difficult to question to answer for now. Take Niki.ai, the chatbot-based app founded by Nitin Babel, Sachin Jaiswal, Keshav Prawasi and Shishir Modi. They started with bill payments and mobile recharges, but Niki now also handles cab bookings, food ordering, home services and bus ticketing.They expect to soon launch flight ticketing, hotel booking, courier service booking and insurance purchases. If users find such chatbots effective, they could make many standalone apps designed for specific purposes less useful.
Danielle Levitas, SVP of research & marketing communication at app analytics firm App Annie, noted that messaging apps had catapulted in terms of adoption and usage, but he thinks chatbots will be a complement to apps. “It will be a feature that brands will use to engage and build awareness via messaging apps that capture so much of our time, particularly of those under 30,” he said.
Besides, many of the chatbots are still some way away from full automation, which reduces their effectiveness. This is perhaps why some of these consumer bots have few downloads and or have mediocre ratings. Most chatbots in India are still dependent on humans to answer detailed and complex queries. With the development of natural language processing and AI, the journey to achieving complete automation could be short. Jain of Joe Hukum said we could be there in the next 6-12 months.