In the News / 14.12.2015

Perfecting the Human-Machine Interface

Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi are working on expanding the scope of interactive voice response

Most of us have interacted with an automated voice machine — popularly called IVR, or Interactive Voice Response — at one point in time or the other and, most times, have been frustrated with the system because of its time consuming, robotic, and at times, senseless responses.

A start-up based in IIT-Madras Research Park, is working on ways to improve the performance of this system and the way it deals with human speech. Uniphore Software Systems wants to transform the way human voice interacts with the machine using machine-learning algorithms that are far more advanced than what is currently available.

“Human beings talk. But can we help machines understand what we talk? That’s what we intent to answer,” says Umesh Sachdev, co-founder of the company.

How it started

To understand the future, one needs to look at the past. In 2008, when Lehman Brothers came crashing down and it seemed the world would end, Uniphore decided to come up with an idea to build a mobile product for rural people. Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi founded the start-up.

“Initially, we focussed on the segment at the bottom of the pyramid — we worked with MFIs and government to deliver monsoon advice to farmers — weather forecasts and the likes — and piloted some of this in Tamil Nadu,” says Sanjeev Gadre, CMO of the start-up.

At the heart of it, Uniphore believes there is a huge challenge to overcome in interweaving technology with human speech, especially in a country that has low literacy and thousands of dialects.

The challenge

Despite these challenges, the start-up continued working on a prototype and, after a year, got a seed funding of $100,000. “We envisioned that, eventually, automation would become a part of customer engagement and, in that case, machines should understand what is said, process that information and respond to speech,” says Sachdev.

The economics of their business is straightforward. As banks and any other form of enterprise focused on delivering services to the customer, there is an inherent need to establish a call centre. However, unlike in the West, as the customer base grows in India, along with new kinds of service offerings, it gets difficult to keep adding more people to do the job.

This is where companies such as Uniphore comes in. “A lot of times there are massive pilferages and leaks — intentionally and unintentionally,” says Gadre, referring to a multinational FMCG company, which is now using the start-up’s voice biometric solution. “For the US, there are countries like India to outsource their call centres to, but where do our corporates go,” Sachdev asks.

Cutting costs

In line with this thought, the start-up launched its speech analytics software called auMina, that provides real-time business insights, measures, and continuously improves contact centre agents’ knowledge, demeanour, sales skills and adherence to processes and policies.

“It also helps cut down cost and time dramatically, thereby increasing revenue. The software currently supports 25 Indian and international languages,” says Gadre.

Similarly, its voice biometrics solution amVoice undertakes user authentication by using every individual’s unique voice-prints (which is believed to be as unique as fingerprints). “It reduces the costs and risks associated with authentication that requires passwords or sharing of sensitive data and allows for remote verification through any mobile,” points out Gadre. These solutions are offered on a subscription model, with the support of cloud computing.

The big names

All this effort has started yielding results. Uniphore has 70 customers, including Axis Bank, Airbus and ITC, and over four million end users. Speech analytics software auMina too is getting attention, with six paid pilots currently underway across the country.

Another big boost came when Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan invested in the company, and joined the company’s Board. Known for his insights into tech, Gopalakrishnan was the right mentor to take the company forward, they felt. The start-up plans to hire 100 employees by end of 2016.

Uniphore has offices in India, the Philippines and Dubai, and plans to expand to the US, where the likes of Apple (with Siri) and Amazon are working on similar solutions.

Funding

Apart from the $100,000 in funding, the start-up recently got funded by IDG Ventures. In its earlier rounds, India Angel Network and Ray Stata, co-founder and Chairman of the Board of Analog Devices and YourNest Angel Fund, invested in the company.

In this kind of a white space, the company is sure to have its share of challenges — like finding the right talent, both at the entry level and senior management level. While Gadre admits that it is something the company has to deal with, he says there is a bright side to this as well — the idea of working for an innovative company and the burgeoning start-up ecosystem is attracting a wide variety of talent.

Industry watchers, however, are doubtful. They say, the company will find it hard to tackle thousands of dialects, in India as well as other parts of the world. And they also ask how accurate speech recognition can get.

One thing, however, is certain. Uniphore has decided to figure out something that not many have done — and the journey has just begun….Read the coverage here