You buy vegetables from a handcart and make your payment with your mobile phone using a Unified Payment Interface (UPI) app like GooglePay or Paytm, scanning a QR code.
The code is pasted on what is actually a loudspeaker which immediately voices the amount you paid in English — or any one of ten Indian languages. Even as he or she is busy serving the next customer, the sabji walla gets confirmation of your payment — in a language that is familiar.
Paytm’s SoundBox solution is Conversational Commerce, brilliantly at work — and post-Covid, it is almost the norm at lakhs of street stalls, kirana stores and mandis, country-wide, a piece of jugaad or frugal technology that in typical Indian fashion, saw a need and met it in the simplest, most cost-effective way possible.
It is also the lowest hanging fruit in a new tree of voice-based technologies that is transforming the way we shop, bank, plan travel, order food etc.
As the demands we make, the queries we speak out, become more complex, so do the technologies that are needed to respond, the most common of which is Artificial Intelligence (AI), creating a new and growing niche called Conversational AI.
This is loosely defined as an omnibus term for a bunch of technologies like chatbots and virtual assistants that users can talk to — and get a spoken response. Behind this lies a pair of other technologies: Machine Learning (ML) and Natural Language Processing (NLP).
Machine Learning means the technology ‘learns’ and improves itself, the more it is used.
Natural Language Processing is the process by which the computer brain in the background understands the language you are speaking. Once it learns to decipher what the user is saying, it does something called Natural Language Generation and artificially creates the words that it speaks.
Allied Market Research estimates that the global Conversational AI market, that was estimated to be worth $5.78 billion in 2020, is estimated to grow sharply to $32.63 billion by 2030.
According to Statista, the share of digital marketers harnessing AI surged from 29 per cent in 2018 to 84 per cent in 2020, much of it after the Covid pandemic. Voice assistants on smartphones are seen to be pushing owners to speak rather than key in their queries.
For India, one of the biggest advantages is that the same Conversational AI system can be taught to understand multiple languages and to respond in the same language.
Even back in 2017, the headquarters of Canara Bank in Bengaluru installed a humanoid robot called Mitra, created by a local start-up, Invento Robotics.
Mitra greeted customers in Kannada. But if you spoke in English, asking 'Where is the nearest Canara Bank ATM?’, or 'What is the fixed deposit interest today?', it quickly switched languages and answered in English.
Invento has helped harness Mitra — and a female version — in many commercial scenarios in retail trade, healthcare and at major events in India and abroad.
During Covid, the company deployed its products as ‘Companion Robots’ in a hospital environment, providing companionship to patients and even — with an attached tablet — connecting them to loved ones.
With attachments like a thermometer and pulse oximeter, it is capable of measuring a patient’s basic health parameters, saving staff from needless exposure to Covid — ‘healthcare with humanity’, Invento co-founder-CEO Balaji Viswanathan calls it.
Saarthi.ai, another Indian deep tech product company, recently crossed a key milestone by the creative use of an AI-enabled voice communicator in a hitherto unexplored niche: debt collection.
Its multilingual conversational platform named Pravid helps recover amounts owed without human intervention with a friendly spoken interface. The loan recoveries made by Saarthi.ai’s finance-sector clients crossed $100 million in November 2022.
Imagine a tourist agency or a popular tourist destination like the Taj Mahal or Mahabalipuram, where such a robot is placed. It can be programmed to understand a dozen or more Indian or international languages and to respond in kind.
The alternative is to employ half a dozen tourist guides who are fluent in all these languages — a huge challenge. We can expect to see conversational robots increasingly used by travel and tourism agencies in 2023.
Chatbots are the most common application of Conversational AI — and the beauty of the tool is that it can easily be placed on a website or offered as a smartphone app. Indeed, there are thousands of e-commerce sites that today, feature a chatbot that will handle spoken queries, provide audio versions of FAQs or Frequently Asked Questions, book service requests or note down complaints.
India’s vibrant start-up ecosystem has ensured that in recent months, many different industry verticals have seen creative Conversational AI solutions on offer:
StarHealth, one of the largest health insurance players in India turned to Gurugram-based Value First (now a part of Twilio) to create the first conversational commerce solution for the insurance sector: an AI-fuelled tool called Surbo.
Other users of ValueFirst’s AI chatbots include Google, Indigo Airlines and Tata Motors.
Another insurance player, Edelweiss is deploying a voice bot, created by Yellow.ai that can handle registration of motor insurance claims round the clock, interacting directly with policy holders or with garage owners.
Some people just love to chat — and LimeChat is a company that provides conversational solutions to enable sellers to interact orally with potential customers on social media sites like WhatsApp, Facebook or Instagram.
This has created a new niche that is slated to expand: Conversational Social Commerce. You can chat about a featured product right up to placing an order.
There are scenarios where it is just easier to place an order through a typed chat rather than speaking it out aloud in public. Last year Haptik (a Reliance Industries company) which claims to be the world’s largest WhatsApp chatbot solution, teamed with Zoop, a partner of IRCTC for food delivery on trains.
Their WhatsApp-based self-service platform features a chatbot, Ziva, which chats with passengers on trains, helping them to place food orders on any of a number of restaurants or cloud kitchens enroute and have them delivered to their seat at the next station.
Another Indian player, ToneTag offers what it says is the world’s largest sound-based proximity-based device-to-device and human-to-device communication system.
Using a patented algorithm, its “Pay with voice” solution authenticates the user’s voice before carrying out any transaction or payment. The payment authentication is done through Audio One-time password (OTP), which eliminates the need for manual input of amount or OTP or PIN.
The entire transaction is completed simply through voice-based interaction.
ToneTag is also the first Voice Interactive device in the industry, with Voice UPI for accepting payments: in a scenario similar to the Paytm soundbox described earlier.
In 2022, ToneTag launched technology that allowed even basic feature phone users to simply dial the designated IVR number and make financial transactions using voice as an input, to make fund transfers, pay utility bills, enquire about account balance, recharge, among others.
For small payments under Rs 500, customers can simply say “Pay the bill" or “Payment kar dijiye" (or the equivalent in Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Kannada, Bengali and soon in more languages) and the payment process completes in two seconds.
The startup saw more than one lakh users on its platform within two months of the launch — a striking example of cutting-edge technologies like Conversational Commerce bridging the yawning gap that separates technologically savvy and well-served urban India, from the vast swathe that is the hinterland we know as Bharat.
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