Virtual assistants a real, big help
A personal assistant should no longer be a privilege for only the rich or the powerful－that is the philosophy behind Wang Guanchun's creation, an artificial intelligence-based Chinese-language app called Zhuli Laiye (Laiye in short, meaning 'Here comes the assistant'.)
With a few taps on the phone, users can text or speak out instructions to get everything from coffees to flowers delivered on demand and for free.
A startup from Microsoft's incubator program Accelerator, Laiye received series-A funding last year with the tech giant itself leading the investors. Among all of the tech giant's graduate programs, Laiye is the first Chinese startup to receive Microsoft's investment.
Laiye is meant to be a dream assistant: it is professional, prompt and receptive to criticism, said Wang, a Princeton graduate of machine learning, who has worked with Baidu on intelligent search.
Three emerging trends propelled Wang to set up his own business in July 2015: the deepening of online-to-offline or O2O integration of retailers; the predominant role of messaging apps in smartphones; and the rapid advances in artificial intelligence-based technologies.
"Rescheduling meetings back and forth and optimizing for attributes like timing and location－nobody likes that part of his or her job," said Wang. "What we do is to enable users to make a smooth conversation with the virtual assistant and let it handle your tasks, without realizing that you are actually talking to an algorithm the whole time."
Laiye first debuted a basic service via WeChat, the ubiquitous messaging app in China, followed by its own app. Later, it launched a premium version that caters specifically to larger and more complicated requests, and charges a monthly fee of 198 yuan ($28.6).
For instance, a regular user can order a cup of sugar-free cappuccino, pay online, and wait the drink to be delivered in an hour. Those who sign up for the VIP service are entitled to more tailored-made services, from booking flight tickets to fetching urgent documents.
In the past 18 months, it has registered over 2 million users. Over 90 percent of the interactions are AI-enabled. Only when a major challenge is detected by the app, the back-end support staff step in.
"It almost feels like having a hotel concierge around from 7 am to 10 pm, and it acts as a full-time employee that you don't have to pay full time," Wang said.
AI powers most apps that function as virtual assistants. For example, AI will take into account a client's location and tell the assistant what service should be used to complete the task.
AI technology also enables machine or app learning－that is, over time, it will learn from the user's habits by analyzing frequent tasks, and patterns in them. For instance, the app would remember Wang's preference for aisle seats when booking flight tickets, so he doesn't need to specify that requirement again and again.
For Laiye, revenue comes mainly from three sources: VIP membership fees, commission fees from merchants, and the sales of technologies to industries that want to adopt AI-enabled services to bolster business.
"For instance, we are seeing this growing trend of online skincare vendors using online beauty advisors to give tips to potential buyers. That's something we'll probably dig deeper into," he said.