The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 17, 2016 |

7days

The bots revolution

Artificial intelligence is powering personal assistants that order food for you, make restaurant bookings, switch on the geyser or the AC before you reach home — and even help you find your soulmate. Expect more dramatic changes in the years ahead, forecasts Kavitha Shanmugam

  • Myntra’s AI platform Artie meets designers daily on their laptops and suggests trending 
    fabrics and prints and designs

You hate the tedium of daily life - booking an Uber cab or a table at a restaurant or paying your direct-to-home TV bills or checking out what the best airline deal you can get for a trip to New York is. What a bore.

Fret not - help is at hand, thanks to a plethora of Man Fridays that are working for you. Personal assistant apps like niki.ai, goherogo (a travel concierge app), haptik and goodservice (which can get you the best plumber in your locality) are geared for just this.

Nor is this all. Smart home gadgets are now available to switch on your AC or geyser as you weave your way home through traffic.

And it's all due to artificial intelligence (AI).

Rajat Tandon, vice-president, Nasscom's 10,000 Start-Ups programme, says that these personal guides that help navigate the digital world are all "artificially intelligent". "You will be asking your Siri or Cortana (personal assistant apps) to order food, book flights, make restaurant bookings, call a cab, have your car repaired," he says.

AI is often referred to as a machine being able to understand "human intent" and become more human-like. India lags behind countries such as France, the US and Israel when it comes to AI, but several Indian start-ups are basing their new products or services on AI.

"Artificial intelligence is the buzzword today," stresses Ashwini Asokan, co-founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of the Chennai and San Francisco AI start-up Mad Street Den.

E-retail sites, which are constantly searching for creative ways to hook customers, rely on AI, too. Asokan's "visual search" technology product - which personalises search keeping the user's tastes in mind - was snapped up by e-commerce companies even before it was launched some time back.

"Today, sites show you random samples of what other people have bought but our recommendation engine displays designs you want after analysing the colour, pattern and history of your image searches on the site. We want to understand the buyer's intent," explains Asokan, a designer who returned after 10 years at Intel in the US to set up an AI start-up with her neuroscientist husband. They have 50 customers across India.

Myntra has adopted AI technology, too. Its AI platform Artie, built by its in-house tech team, powers its fashion brand Moda Rapido, which was launched last September.

Artie meets Myntra's designers daily on their laptops and suggests trending fabrics and prints, and designs based on the availability of raw material, manufacturing capacity and so on. The designers then piece together a design and 30-40 new designs are swiftly despatched to the factories, partially automating the design process, explains Gautam Kotamraju, senior vice-president, new initiatives, Myntra.

"AI is helping us to be more efficient and getting us customer wow," Kotamraju says.

It is this aspect of accelerating efficiency which is attracting the information technology industry. Indeed, everybody - from top IT players such as Wipro to new software companies like Perpetuuiti - is integrating AI technology in their business. Exclaims Rohil Sharma, founder & CEO, Perpetuuiti. "AI is the future."

Sharma says that by automating work, Indian IT companies can minimise losses totalling Rs 38,000 crore caused by IT disruptions.

Why has AI caught on suddenly? Bangalore-based Sachin Jaiswal, co-founder and CEO of niki.ai, an automated ordering bot (a computer programme that converses in natural language), believes the interest in AI has spiked because it is the "holy grail" for software engineers.

"AI is as exciting as it sounds, and we want to catch up on what's happening globally," says Jaiswal, seated in his tech office. Launched in April, this start-up, funded by Ronnie Screwvala's Unilazer Ventures, is the brainchild of four IIT Kharagpur graduates.

He predicts that in the not-so-distant future, there will be driverless cars, robots trading your stocks and bots that will converse with you. But, for now, their bot is smart enough to pick from your text to the app a request to book a cab or alert you when your mobile has to be recharged.

Niki.ai has developed a solution for its virtual assistant app which will not require manual inputs. "Our working is entirely automated, unlike other bot chats managed manually," says Shishir Modi, another co-founder.

AI can also help you find your soulmate, says K.J. Dhaliwal, CEO and co-founder, dilmil. A South Asian matchmaking app in the NRI market, it was launched in India over two months ago and averages two marriages a week. It connects people who are matched perfectly through AI technology, he says.

"We're trying to predict human emotion, which is very hard to do. But when you have over a million matches, you can filter out the most successful ones and tell the machine to predict which users are likely to have similar matches," Dhaliwal explains.

Industry watchers believe that Indian engineers are expected to make great inroads into IA in the future.

"India has a track record of having excellent software engineers and they not only will catch up but outperform AI solutions provided outside," says Nalin Gupta, co-founder, AuroRobotics, an AI company set up by IIT Kharagpur graduates.

Gupta and his teammates have worked on a driverless car using AI. The car, which will roll out this year, is not for the roads, but for private properties such as college campuses, theme parks and retirement homes.

Bangalore-based Intugine Technologies uses AI in its wearable-based gesture recognition tech - you can, for instance, switch on the AC or music in a car with a particular motion of a ringed finger. Its young team was inspired to create a cheaper version of Microsoft kinect, a gesture recognition device that is used in a gaming console.

Sudeshna Sarkar, professor, computer science and engineering department, IIT Kharagpur, believes that AI is making huge strides in India also because of cheap computation, large data availability, significant improvement in machine learning and the popularity of the start-up culture. Harsh Srivastava, co-founder of Intugine Technologies and another IITian, believes that the increased processing power of computing devices has helped deploy AI technology.

The challenges facing AI start-ups are lack of skilled software engineers and the privacy line AI can cross to learn about people through their personal data.

"The invasion of one's privacy becomes an issue when these machines are learning from all your personal data on Facebook, instagrams, status updates," says Snehal Dhruve, CEO of goherogo. "With time, the bot understands what a person wants not through their clicks but through conversations."

AI already exists in mobile apps, IT software and in e-commerce and is helping to make the users' experience more interactive. AI can greatly help in diverse areas such as healthcare, smart cities, climate change and transportation, Sarkar points out.

But can AI replace humans or become human-like? The creators of niki.ai have added a lot of "empathy" to their bot, so it responds to your queries with words such as "wonderful" or "sorry" while talking to you. Soon, it - or she - will get smarter and can become the digital friend you want to put your arm around. But, like actor Joaquin Phoenix in the Hollywood movie Her, you may discover that you cannot get a machine to love you back.