Uber has me thoroughly spoiled. I have no patience anymore to wait for an auto-rickshaw, haggle with its driver, or kickstart my rickety old bike. Now, I want a cab when I am ready to step out. But that’s a bit much to ask in India.
Even in the cool tech hub of Bangalore, internet is sketchy unless there’s a solid broadband connection going. If I step out of my house, I can barely manage 2G internet on my mobile phone. So often, I am sucking up my pride and hailing begging, and haggling with auto-rickshaw drivers. But last week, an entrepreneur friend pointed me to another option: a new chatbot called Niki.
Niki is a simple, no-frills virtual assistant powered by artificial intelligence. You can tell it to book a cab for you, and it will give you options from both Uber and Ola in the hatchback, sedan, and SUV categories. It will tell you which one is closer to your location, what are the fares, and book the one you pick. You don’t need to have Uber or Ola on your phone phone, which means you don’t need to wait for the map to load to then book your ride. You can also track the ride and even cancel it right from Niki.
Launched two weeks ago, Niki does two things, for now: top-up your phone credit and hail an Uber or Ola cab. “That’s just the beginning. It can actually understand anything that you type in the context of product and services you want to buy. Soon, Niki could shop for you and pay your utility bills,” Sachin Jaiswal, co-founder of Niki, tells me. The app recently raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Unilazer Ventures.
The market that Niki is aiming for is mostly the second and third-tier cities of India where the internet sucks and most people have basic smartphones with very little memory and space. Niki is so light that it can work seamlessly on any smartphone in poor internet conditions, says Sachin.
Toying with AI for consumers
Sachin, an Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Kharagpur grad, founded Niki with his classmates Shishir Modi, Nitin Babel, and Keshav Prawasi in April 2015. Earlier, Sachin was part of the founding team of data analytics company Innovaccer, backed by 500 Startups.
Before founding Niki, Shishir was working with online rental library Indiareads heading its strategic initiatives, Nitin was a data analyst with Ipsos, and Keshav was with Amazon for four years, developing machine-learning-based systems. All of them quit their jobs and moved to Udaipur in Rajasthan to start Niki.
“We wanted to use artificial intelligence to build something for consumers,” Sachin says, recalling why he moved out of Innovaccer. “Initially, we were just toying around to see if we could come up with something useful.” The Niki co-founders had a pool of interns working with them in the initial days.
Niki launched in beta mode with around 800 users in June 2015. Those initial users tested out the product and gave feedback enough to iterate the chatbot multiple times and iron out glitches.
The Niki co-founders shifted to Bangalore in August. And now their team is 18 members strong.
The chatbot’s learning
Chatbots, in layman terms, are computer programs that can simulate an intelligent conversation with human users. They can be programmed to have a personality. For example, two students at the New School in New York designed one called d.bot. The founders – Joanna Chinn and Bryan Collinsworth – loaded the chatbot with the kind of everyday casual sexism women face during real interactions on Tinder, other online dating sites, and forums. Their idea was to show men how demeaning most of the online interactions can be for women.
For Niki’s creators, the idea is to simplify online buying – such as a cab ride – into one nifty chat app that anybody familiar with messaging can use. Some ecommerce apps can be intimidating for many users who just migrated to a smartphone. For a consumer, what Niki really offers is the ease of getting things done – be it about comparing Uber and Ola before booking or about doing other online transactions which might otherwise involve multiple apps, heavy internet consumption, and so on.
For a consumer, what Niki really offers is the ease of getting things done – be it about comparing Uber and Ola before booking or about doing other online transactions which might otherwise involve multiple apps, heavy internet consumption, and so on.
“Think about it: you have two different apps for cabs; you have five apps for food ordering, movies, and grocery shopping; you have a few to pay some monthly bills. On average, a consumer has to interact with 20 different apps to do all this. Niki can do it all. Imagine, all those utilities compressed into one small 5 MB app,” Sachin points out.
But right now, Niki has just started with those two utilities. For that, it has integrated at the backend with Uber, Ola, and Paytm wallet to get the top-ups done.
The app doesn’t look all that sleek and sharp yet. But when I tried out the chatbot last week, it worked like a dream to get me a cab. It gave me both Ola and Uber options, told me which cab could reach me the fastest, and at what price-point. Uber won over Ola that time. And for once, I didn’t have to go through an excruciating wait for the map to load and pick my location.
As for the top-up function, I tried to get the chatbot on my phone to do the job for my mom as I only have a post-paid connection. That effort was futile. Niki probably has some more learning to do there – or some teaching for its users. Meanwhile, I am happy to delegate all cab-hailing to it.
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