Vir­tual as­sis­tants a real, big help

China Daily (Canada) - - BUSINESS - By HE WEI in Shang­hai hewei@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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 cof­fee 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 on­lineto-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 vi­aWeChat, the ubiq­ui­tous mes­sag­ing app in China, fol­lowed by its own app. Later, it launched a pre­mi­umver­sion 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. Over90 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 like­hav­ing 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 some­thingwe’ll prob­a­bly dig deeper into,” he said.

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

A doc­tor uses Wing­span’s AI-en­abled on­line di­ag­no­sis sys­tem to carry out re­mote di­ag­no­sis.

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