Boom time for Indian-language virtual assistants

Angarika Gogoi | Feb 12, 2019 | 7 min read

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Intro: Indian start-ups are banking on vernacular-powered virtual assistants that will speak to users in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu and a host of other Indian languages

 

The second most populous country in the world and home to over 20 prominent languages, India is on the threshold of turning into a driving force in the world of voice-enabled virtual assistants. A mini explosion of start-ups and investors are placing their bets on vernacular-powered virtual assistants that will cater to a population of over half a million people.

This Artificial Intelligence (AI) sector is eyeing the millions of mobile users who are more comfortable with Indian languages than English.

 

Making waves, regionally

Reverie Language Technologies, a Bangalore-based start-up founded in 2010, launched its own Indic voice suite, Gopal, last year. Gopal is powered by an automated speech recognition engine in 11 Indian languages and can power voice bots and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) to boost user engagement.

“Most Indians do not speak English. This is a fact. Most of the Indian Internet is only available in English. This is also a fact. What this means is that most Indians effectively have very little space for themselves online,” says Arvind Pani, co-founder and CEO of Reverie Language Technologies.

Kavita Reddi, co-founder and director of Voxta Communications, a speech recognition start-up founded in May 2014, says, “It is like Alexa or Siri in Indian languages, and we are working across several sectors.”

Voxta Communications provides bespoke voice bots across three sectors: banking, e-commerce and education. Services in English, Hindi, and Telugu are currently available and voice services in Marathi, Gujarati, Kannada, Bengali, and Tamil are in the pipeline, confirms Reddi.

 

Big numbers in growth and investments

Reddi believes that with the easy availability of smartphones an entirely new audience can potentially come online. This group may not necessarily be literate or fluent in English but uses a phone to access information online by typing in Hindi, Bengali, or Tamil, she adds.

Deloitte published a report last May, predicting a growth in technology, media and telecommunications. It stated that India had nearly 432 million Internet users, and this number is growing rapidly. They expect that vernacular users will be more than 2.5 times of the English Internet user base by 2021 in India.

These findings are backed by a KPMG report released last year, which reveals that the Hindi Internet user base along with vernacular languages, like Marathi and Bengali, in India is likely to grow. It further states that users of South Indian languages would be among the most digitally engaged till 2021. This is because Indian language users would find this more reliable than English content. These users are likely to account for almost 75% of India’s Internet user base by 2021.

Investments, too, in this sector have been positive. Rijul Jain, associate principal at Astarc Ventures, acknowledges the need to produce content in vernacular languages. “As long as this need is not satiated, the number of start-ups and investments in this sphere will keep growing,” he says. Astarc Ventures has invested in AI-driven vernacular start-ups, namely Liv.ai, Khidki, Norah.ai, and Infinite Analytics.

Microsoft Accelerator has invested in Reverie and Aspada based in Bangalore, while international investors include Qualcomm Ventures, a California-based investment firm. Niki.ai, another start-up in this segment, has raised seed funding by Ratan Tata and Ronnie Screwvala-owned Unilazer Ventures. It has also managed to raise funding from SAP, a global leader in business management software.

Sumit Gupta, a data analytics practice leader formerly associated with consulting firms KPMG and EY, believes that the telecom and mobile revolution provides ease of access to the Internet. This has primarily resulted in generation of data on a large scale. “Organisations that make the most out of the connectivity and the data revolution are the ones that will essentially move ahead in the curve,” he says.

 

Highs and roadblocks

The use of AI is a sophisticated process and its success depends on how accurate it can be in its delivery of services.

Sachin Jaiswal, CEO of Niki.ai, AI coupled with Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning, is helping them understand the way people converse and give accurate responses. “With the language-agnostic NLP engine, backed by data of over three years now, Niki can understand multilingual inputs in a single sentence, removing all language barriers and enabling smooth flow of conversations,” he says.

Niki provides the chatbot service where users can simply talk to or text Niki to shop for numerous products and services, like booking movie and bus tickets, hotel and cab reservations, utility bill payments, mobile recharges, local deals and laundry services, to name a few.

However, there are still some challenges these start-ups face. A PwC study conducted in 2018 to understand the impact of AI on Indian businesses found several deterrents to the growth of this sector. The key barriers included high costs (20%), lack of technical ability (14%), lack of quality data (12%), privacy concerns (12%), and concerns of trust (11%).

Jain believes that for AI to function well a high volume of data is needed, and the challenges for start-ups depend on their individual goals. “If someone is working with a voice product that caters to a Hindi-speaking user, you would need maximum recordings in Hindi to train the model. Here, the challenge could be the kind of data in terms of variation, language and dialects,” he says.

Gupta, on the other hand, says some of the biggest technology companies across the world have shown the way to use big data, and this data can be used in both a positive and as well as a negative manner.

“Leading technology firms have taken the big leap and are steadily gathering customer data and understanding patterns of people’s consumption based on their preferences,” he adds.

“These companies do get litigation with regards to data privacy, but in India the guidelines are not too clear. There is a very thin line between what is acceptable and what is not.”

 

Government in the digital space

With flagship programmes like Make in India, Digital India, and Startup India, the government has embraced the digital revolution. This has also highlighted the need for an efficient Data Protection Bill in the country, which is currently in the draft proposal stage.

The government has also closely worked with start-ups in this sector. In 2014, Voxta Communications tied up with BJP and launched the IVR campaign where users could dial in and listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pre-recorded messages or live speeches.

Reverie, too, has worked closely with the government on two platforms — the latter’s e-Marketplace, where they helped to create the platform in Indian languages, removing English as a barrier to usage for ease of adoption by all government officials, and the e-National Agriculture Market, popularly known as e-NAM, which has enabled real-time access to pricing data and a marketplace for millions of farmers in their own language, cutting out the middlemen.

Reddi mentions that Voxta also worked with Reckitt Benckiser in 2015 on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, where a poem on “Swachhta” was recorded in Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan’s voice. They also made outgoing calls to five million people through IVR. People were offered a range of options where they could seek information about the campaign if they wanted to find out what they could do, what they thought was the specific problem in their ‘ilaakaa’ or village, etc.

Voxta has its own English learning app — Chat Chit — that teaches people spoken English. “Voice is the critical bridge, and its moment has come,” Reddi signs off.

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