Indian AI chatbot Niki.ai on shopping in chat, India's tech future and why AI isn't a buzzword

Niki.ai CEO Sachin Jaiswal :Cumulative effect of rapid adoption of technology in numerous sectors will power Indian economy

India is the third-largest startup cluster after the US and UK for AI, according to a consulting study from 2016 by Zinnov , with around 169 AI startups and a total funding of $0.3 billion in this domain.

Indian startup Niki.ai, armed with a fresh $2m series A funding round, is hoping to disrupt the shopping experience by allowing people to shop within chatbots.

India is not new to AI, as there have been some high profile uses of the technology already, namely Microsoft's chatbot Ruuh, which wanted to connect with young people. Senior leaders have also projected that innovative technology, such as Digital Payments, AI and VR, will power the Indian economy in future.

From a governmental position, a recent Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India report stated that India should take the lead in establishing a legal infrastructure on the application of artificial intelligence (AI) to become a frontrunner. This indicates an interest and support being shown by government when it comes to innovations in the field of AI.

The Drum spoke with Sachin Jaiswal, CEO, Niki.ai, an AI powered chatbot about the future of AI and chatbots in India.

AI is being used in many industries now in different ways - how do you define it in the context of what you do?

Niki is an artificial intelligence-powered chatbot that lets you shop on chat. The app guides the user along with recommendations to reach the right service and then goes to the last mile to make the transaction. As a user of the Niki app, one can search, discover, choose, make payment and complete a transaction, all on a simple chat interface.

Niki.ai aims to make artificial intelligence accessible to everyone, i.e. businesses and consumers. The company provides a simple and easy to use chat interface to shop for products and services to the consumers. To the businesses, it provides a plug and play technology that can be easily integrated everywhere including operating systems, on messaging platforms messenger, and on the brand’s applications (app and web). Niki’s SDK is being used by a number of organisations including HDFC bank, one of the largest banks in the country, for its messenger bot HDFC Bank OnChat. We also have partnership with some major smartphone OEMs such as Intex, ZOPO, Zen which have Niki pre-installed on their products.

The Niki app is a chatbot that intelligently uses AI to execute tasks. You can recharge your prepaid phone, book a cab, pay postpaid or utility bills, order food, get laundry done, do bus and hotel bookings, make a booking for an interesting event in your city, even buy movie tickets by simply chatting with the bot. Over time, Niki will understand your preferences, and give you personalised information on deals and offers you may be interested in.

To further enhance the convenience for a mobile user, the company is soon going to add the feature of voice communication, which is already being beta tested. Furthermore, to eradicate all the friction there is when it comes to online shopping for Indian customers, and make the bot sound more natural, Niki.ai aims to interpret Indian languages, starting with Hindi and then eventually being multilingual.

Tell us about the recent funding you raised

We received $2m in a Series A round of funding from San Francisco based fund SAP.iO (first investment in India) and existing investor Ronnie Screwvala's Unilazer Ventures. The funding also saw participation from other Indian investors including Haresh Chawla (Partner at True North) and Arihant Patni, along with some US and German investors.

We want to provide consumers with multiple touchpoints to access Niki. With our SDK being deployed across platforms (Android, iOS, Web, Messaging apps) by banks, OEMs, wallets & startups; we move a step closer to our vision of being ubiquitous. The current funding raise will be utilised to further strengthen our distribution.

What is the future of AI in India? Does it see enough support from the government?

Innovation is the key to future growth and firms have started to realise that. Artificial intelligence is the innovation everyone has been talking about these days. It is expected to change the way we perform certain business activities, such as production, manufacturing and processing. Some organisations have been front runners in utilising AI in their businesses so extensively that human intervention in their business has come down drastically.

If we talk specifically about what we’re doing in the space, the future of AI-based chatbots seems to be particularly bright in India. Research showed that there will be more than 450 million smartphone users in the country by 2020. With messaging apps being the most used apps globally, conversational commerce is definitely set to take off in India. This is already happening in China, where more than 650 million people make bill payments and bookings using WeChat app.

Indian government has been really supportive for everything startup-related since the time when ‘Make in India’ was launched a few years ago.

The AI startup sector in India is also receiving humongous recognition by the government owing to the commendable work being done. The government has invested funds and will also be investing the infrastructure that will provide a much needed impetus.

Do you think AI/VR can power Indian economy in future?

The AI industry is growing with every passing day and is sure going to drive the tech sector of the economy significantly upwards. With so much momentum already, experts say that AI is still in its nascent stage, and will be soon disrupting almost all the sectors. From fintech, to HealthTech, to logistics, AI is growing up leaps and bounds on the basis of the transformation innovation being made by the AI startups.

The latest developments in areas such as neuro-linguistic programming, speech recognition, machine learning, data security, computer vision, knowledge graphs, etc is set to get better with time, triggering positive growth and bringing benefits to various verticals.

It has been seen over the last few years that technology adoption in India is at a much higher pace than most of the other countries in the world. Smartphone and internet penetration has been exponential, and thus, if AI comes into picture in majority of the sectors, the impact has to be huge. The cumulative effect of rapid adoption of technology in numerous sectors can definitely power Indian economy in the future.

Is AI in danger of buzzword fatigue?

Not exactly. Although there is a whole new and immense buzz around AI which is intriguing everyone around the world, it is still far away from fading because of the rapid innovations. Introduction of every new technology has to pass the test of time and prove itself to be worth adopting. The same happened in the case of mobile apps right when everyone was used to websites. We all know the scenario now, it’s been all about apps.

Apart from that, we think AI is interesting. It is interesting for a common non-tech user, and it is interesting for those in technology, just because of the sheer potential it has shown when it comes to changing lives. If done right, the AI wave will definitely wash out the inefficiencies and problems that are unsolved, and bring to us a world full of convenience.

How are you working with brands and businesses?

It’s a channel partnership model that we work on. We essentially get a commission for every order that we generate for our vendors, who do the fulfillment. Our current service offerings are bill payments, cab bookings, recharge, bus and hotel bookings, home services, food ordering, movie and event ticketing, which are fulfilled by our partner merchants including Ola, Uber, Burger King, BookMyShow and more. We are venturing into newer segments to expand our service offerings. For the same, we have 10-plus services in the pipeline in coming months including groceries, flight bookings and healthcare.

Earlier this year, Niki.ai released its Chatbot SDK, which provides brands with an opportunity to enable conversational commerce on their platform through a simple integration, and make use of the advanced technology of language processing and machine learning. The SDK acts as a plug and play technology that can be easily integrated in less than an hour of development effort.

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