Just around autumn last year, the ground beneath a bunch of niche bot makers in India shook. They were not making regular bots, programmes that automate tasks; they were building chatbots. The kind of bots that could chat with humans almost like a real person, learn about users and cater to their whims and needs. The entrepreneurs were creating proxy digital personal assistants.
The earth shattering news came from Facebook. About its new experiment—the digital virtual assistant M inside the Messenger. It was said to be strong and powerful—more than Siri and Cortana—because other than the artificial intelligence (AI) piece, it had an army of people on standby that could fulfill users’ requests in a fraction of a second.
“It was the moment of awakening,” says Sachin Jaiswal, co-founder of Niki.ai, an AI-based personal assistant startup. “It was October (last year) when we came to know about M, and we thought, shit, now we have to compete with Facebook.”
Niki was not alone to feel the jerk.There were many in the same boat. Haptik, MagicTiger, Yana, Helpchat, DudeGenie and Goodservice to name a few.
Things weren’t easy in any case for the band of dreamers who were betting on a service model that hadn’t taken off anywhere else in the world. Even in the US, where Magic, Mezi and Ozlo have been early champions of chatbots, they are far from being a blockbuster success.
India’s on-demand, virtual assistants offered to buy you grocery, pick your laundry, book you a movie ticket and plan your date. For the opportunity they explored, and the excitement they brought, they had a good run for a while. But soon the excitement faded, and so did the buzz.
Luckily for them, M did not fly. Facebook said its most awaited feature wasn’t due out for several more years because it still had a long way to go before it’d be ready for its 1.7 billion users. But that couldn’t save the Indian startups from what was impending. The churn and the fall. Earlier this year, a couple of them hung their boots. A few others got acquired, some pivoted, while the rest are still struggling to find their rightful place. More than a simple sum of rights and wrongs, the plight of Indian virtual assistants has been finding real problems to solve.
‘When things go wrong, as they sometimes will’
When Pratyush Prasanna founded MagicTiger last year, he thought he’d hit a homerun.