Sipping chai out of a kulhad, a middle-aged man draws a pattern thrice on his phone screen in an attempt to unlock his smart-phone; the one that he recently bought on Diwali after saving for a couple of months as most of his earnings are used up for expenses at home and for taking care of his elderly parents. Taking another sip of the hot tea on the cold November morning he says in a loud, clear voice:
“Niki, 75 rupay ka recharge karo”
“Theek hai, kripya recharge karne ke liye phone number batayein”
“Nau saat ek cheh saat shoonya teen teen ek nau“
“9716703319 ke liye 75 rupay ka recharge kar rahi hun, kya yeh jankari sahi hai?”
“Bohot badiya! ₹75 ka upyog kiya jaa raha hai aapke niki credits mei se...
“Recharge safal hua, kya mai aapke liye kuch aur kar sakti hun?”
A wide smile spreads over the young face, worry lines disappearing to make a quick comeback. That is how Namdev, keeper of a small shop in Pune, Maharashtra starts his day: Talking to Niki, a conversational AI bot that helps him do prepaid recharges for himself and his family. Namdev also talks to Niki when he has to pay his household bills as the simple conversational-interface in Hindi has enabled him to be technologically advanced without any language barrier.
“Bohot dost log aate hain recharge karwane, ab kon button mei padh padh ke english ko samjhe, hum toh padhe likhe hain nahi itne. Niki humko samajhti hai aur fatafat se recharge hojaata hai” (A lot of friends come to me for recharges. With no knowledge of English, it’s difficult to understand the multiple buttons available on apps, Niki understands me and quickly helps me with transactions), he says proudly.
Namdev who uses most of the applications on his phone in Hindi finds Niki’s voice-feature the easiest to use and is grateful that despite having little knowledge of English or without possessing an ATM card, he can still do online transactions striking a simple conversation with Niki, using UPI and other micro-lending options that the bot provides.
Just like most Indians were sceptical of making online payments initially, Namdev too was unsure of Niki when he first discovered the bot watching a video on YouTube. But, talking to her over transactions of small amounts gradually increasing over time and always having her by his stride if there ever was an issue, built his trust with Niki and made him confident of its usefulness for all his everyday tasks.
Over simple conversations, Namdev now completely counts on the bot for paying all his household bills including electricity, DTH, gas, postpaid connection and landline. He saves a lot of time that previously went in commuting and making offline transactions. “Niki se humare sab kaam saral ho gaye hain, ab na line mei lagna padta hai na waqt zaaya hota hai, jaise yeh chotu meri dukaan mei madad karta hai, Niki hamare har ghar ke kaam aur kharche mei kaam aati hai.” (Niki has made life really convenient, I don’t have to stand in ques and I save a lot of time. Just like the chotu who helps me out at my shop, Niki helps me with all my household transactions), he says gleefully.
While Niki helps millions of Indians like Namdev who are tied at the hands of complicated user-interface or English language and unaccessible online payment options, it also gives power to over 41% (or in a population of 1.3 billion, about 55 crore) Hindi-speaking Indians, to use technology in their first language. The choice of conversing in one’s mother-tongue for everyday tasks is what truly makes technology accessible to all. This is the vision that Niki.ai, the company behind the innovation of India’s home-grown bot, Niki has had throughout - building a product that becomes a tool of empowerment for India’s next billion internet users.
37-year old, Praveen Jain, who is a legal head by profession and a member of Bharathiya Bhaasha Abhiyaan is another Niki user who strongly believes that any application, product or business that is rolled out for the Indian market should be usable by the common man of the country, in their preferred Indian language. “Har desh apne nagrikon ke liye unki bhasha mei hi takniki nirmaan karta hai, hume bhi karna chahiye” (Every country builds technology for its own people in their language, we should too). For Praveen, Niki acts a catalyst in his efforts to make technology accessible to the majority of Indians who do not know how to read, write or speak in English.
He uses Niki in Hindi everyday for all his online transactions from recharges to bill payments to movie booking and appreciates the bot to enable millions of Indians every day for online transactions. “Hindi bhasha aur sirf baat karne se kaam karne par Niki bharat mei artificial intelligence aur commerce ko lead karegi” (Niki will lead sectors of Commerce & AI, with Hindi & Voice features released for the Indian audience)
These words echo the sentiments of Indian masses who have been eagerly waiting for their turn to enter the bandwagon of high technology trends such as Artificial intelligence, machine learning or voice bots. "We are focussed in building a product for all of Bharat and not just the Indians living in Tier-1 cities. With Niki, Indians can now speak to a bot that acts as a household agent, in their mother tongue to carry out online payments and transactions without any barriers. We have removed all interfaces, keeping everything similar to the offline world, where every service and product is availed through the medium that we’re most familiar with, conversations," says Sachin Jaiswal, CEO and co-founder, Niki.ai.
The 3-year old company, which is backed by Ratan Tata, Ronnie Screwvala and SAP from Germany, has seen a tremendous response from users all over the country, since the launch of Hindi and voice feature. Recently, the company also reported turning profitable for all transactions starting October 2018.
Aiming to empower the masses and become an all-inclusive product, the company will soon launch voice and language support in multiple Indian languages including Bengali, Marathi, Tamil and alike. It is indeed a matter of pride for the Indian start-up ecosystem that a home-grown start-up has finally taken strides, leading the revolution of ‘Digital India’ on behalf of the Non-English speaking Indian population.