Niki: A chat-based bot to book a cab, pay bills, recharge & more.
While Aladdin’s genie was good for three wishes, an Indian bot going by the name Niki promises to do much better than the character in the Arabian Nights tale.
The creators of Niki say the personal assistant application powered by artificial intelligence can book your cab or bus, recharge your mobile service, pay your utility bills and more. Instead of rubbing on a lamp, you use a chat application to interact with Niki.
Niki, developed by a group of four engineering graduates, now has 1,700 users, whose use of this one app eliminates the need for several other ecommerce apps to be downloaded on the phone.
The quest to rid the need for multiple applications to be downloaded on a phone is the Holy Grail of developers, presenting a multi-billion dollar opportunity. Mobile applications have become necessary tools to engage customers, but companies have to battle hard for precious memory space on a user’s phone.
“The idea started because of the need to simplify the maze of different apps,” said CEO and cofounder Sachin Jaiswal, 27, a graduate of IIT Kharagpur.
Chat-based personal assistant apps Helpchat and Lookup function similarly, but employ a hybrid model of automation and people manning requests at the backend to help users book movie tickets, order food or shop. MagicTiger acquired Zoyo, an AI-powered chat bot, to automate its workflows.
The difference with Niki is that it is entirely automated. Niki understands what a user types—this technology is called natural language processing—and learns about a user’s habits over a period of time—this technology is called machine learning. For instance, she can identify if a request for an Airtel prepaid recharge was in fact for Airtel or Aircel by learning from previous transactions.
Globally and in India artificial intelligence is becoming a hot sector. Google open-sourced its machine learning software TensorFlow saying it had potential to make a bigger impact outside Google, across sectors as varied as astronomy and genomics. With Google entering the fray, will there be room for others? “Yes of course; more than plenty,” said Kailash Nadh, a PHD in artificial intelligence from Middlesex University, London who is the chief technology officer at financial technology firm Zerodha. “There is no one-size-fits-all AI (yet). That would be the Holy Grail. Until then, there are numerous problems in AI to be solved.”
Niki aims to take ecommerce to people in small cities and towns who may not be inclined to download many apps due to constraints in bandwidth and smartphone capabilities.
“Through (Niki) we can generate demand for other companies,” said Jaiswal, who is selectively partnering with merchants to enable chat-based transactions. “We don’t want to ruin experience with premature scale.” He cofounded the company with Nitin Babel, Keshav Prawasi and Shishir Modi.
Currently, Niki, which was in testing mode the past seven months, has integrations with Ola and Uber for cab bookings and with Paytm for mobile recharge payments. It charges the companies a percentage of the transactions as its commission. “Tech-first companies have dominated the market globally with firm focus on user experience and simplicity, a trend which has started in India as well,” said Ronnie Screwvala, founder of Unilazer Ventures, which has invested an undisclosed amount in Niki. “They have a standout team and are on the brink of some innovative work. We are closely working with them to realize this vision.”
Niki eventually will be powered with voice capabilities and be accessible also via calls and text messages. And genie will have a high-tech Niki to compete with.