Bengaluru: It is safe to say that bots, software programs that are used to automate tasks, are the flavour of the season. Even, the zeitgeist, if you will.

Facebook opened up its Messenger platform with 900 million users for bots. Messaging platform Slack, the darling of the enterprise start-up world, announced an $80 million fund for start-ups developing bots on its platform. Kik Messenger and Telegram, two other messaging platforms too opened up for bots.

Although bots have been around for a while in some form or the other, there are two reasons why chat bots, bots that can emulate human conversations, have come to the fore right now.

Firstly, artificial intelligence and natural language processing, two technologies that lend a human-like intelligence to bots are more accessible for developers than ever. Secondly, with smartphone users facing app fatigue, chat bots offer an easier user interface via apps that most people already have and use on their phones, without the need to download multiple apps.

Facebook and their ilk want to make use of this opportunity and emulate the success of apps like WeChat in China, which initially started out as a messaging app but morphed into a platform where users can do everything from sending money, interacting with brands and even finding dates.

So far though, the most common use case for chat bots has been ordering pizza or flowers, which is why services start-ups like Helpchat (Coraza Technologies Pvt. Ltd) and Lookup (Hatchery Software Pvt. Ltd) are among those that are trying to adopt chat bots in a big way.

Experts say this is common for a platform in its early days.

“Much like the opening up of other platforms like Apple’s iOS in 2007, Android in 2008 and Facebook in 2010, early applications tend to either be purely experimental bordering on frivolous, as well as line extensions from applications running on other platforms," said Dev Khare, managing director at venture firm Lightspeed India Partners Advisors.

Also, with bots, there are always questions about how effective a conversation can be without some human intervention. Analysts say that technology isn’t advanced enough to capture all the nuances in language. “Over time, artificial intelligence will be able to answer a larger proportion of total queries, but there will always be unique questions and needs that computers can’t handle well. So this is really a question of balance, with the mix of human and computer changing steadily over time," said Jan Dawson, chief analyst, Jackdaw Research.

There has also been a rise in bot start-ups that provide virtual assistant-like services, scheduling email for instance, or provide infrastructure and platforms for developing bots.

Mint has put together a list of five Indian start-ups that have recently started to use bots to address five different use cases.

Fynd (Shopsense Retail Technologies Pvt. Ltd)

Founded: 2012

Fynd, a fashion discovery app, is going to launch a bot called “Fify" on Facebook Messenger next week to help users discover more products. Customers can message the bot asking to see particular items, or looks, and they would be served with relevant product images. Clicking on an image takes the customer to a product page, and payment can be made via a webpage. Fynd hopes to evolve the product so that the bot can carry on conversations, and even gossip with users. It has raised an undisclosed amount of pre-Series A funding from Kae Capital, Snapdeal founders Kunal Bahl and Rohit Bansal, and others.

Niki.ai (Techbins Solutions Pvt. Ltd)

Founded: 2015

Niki.ai offers an app where users can chat with a bot to order cabs from ride-hailing services Uber and Ola, recharge their phones and order from Burger King. The start-up raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding from Ronnie Screwvala’s Unilazer Ventures. Niki.ai doesn’t have human intervention, and is entirely automated. Niki.ai plans to extend its offerings to other services, including bill payments, and makes money on commissions from transactions through its app.

Lawbot (Acumenist Analytics Pvt. Ltd)

Founded: 2015

Lawbot, a Chennai-based company, offers a bot that can analyse legal contracts and point out potential risk areas, and suggest how the terms can be improved. The start-up is among five start-ups in the current Target Accelerator program, and is looking at helping legal teams at large corporate firms who have to review an enormous number of contracts. The bot will help lawyers while drafting contracts by suggesting relevant clauses.

Skedool.it Inc.

Founded: 2015

Skedool.it, which has offices in India and the US, offers an AI-powered bot assistant for professionals to schedule their meetings. Users copy their bot’s email address whenever they have to schedule a meeting, and the bot emails the other person to set up a meeting at a convenient time and place. Humans still oversee the actions of this bot, though. The company services customers in the US and Europe and charges $99 per user per month. Skedool.it has raised seed funding led by Kludein Llc and a clutch of investors, including Phani Sharma (founder of redBus) and Pranav Pai, investing on behalf of former Infosys executive board member T.V. Mohandas Pai.

Gupshup.io (Webaroo Inc.)

Founded: 2004

Webaroo Inc. is an enterprise messaging company that started out in 2004, but chief executive officer Beerud Sheth seems to have realised the opportunity in servicing bots now. This month, the company launched Gupshup.io, a platform for developers to build, deploy and manage bots. Gupshup offers application programming interfaces, with which software programs can interact with each other, for all the popular messaging platforms, including SMS, Facebook Messenger, Slack, Telegram and Teamchat.

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