Ixigo Looks Beyond Chatbots With ‘Tara’, Its Voice-Based AI-Powered Assistant

Although the Internet should have disrupted the travel industry, the fact is that even as companies like Cleartrip, MakeMyTrip, Ibibo and others have grown into huge enterprises day, old-fashioned travel agents you can talk to still represent a big part of the industry. But what if even the travel agent you talk to could be replaced by an intelligent voice agent?

We’re not talking about a chatbot — despite a lot of chatter around conversational commerce, the fact is that most chatbots are just dumb replacements for IVRs — but voice assistants similar to Siri and Cortana. The difference is that these voice-based assistants/ agents are dedicated solely to helping you get the best travel deals. That’s the idea behind Ixigo’s new voice assistant Tara, which will be launching in 2018 as part of the Ixigo app, aside from its standalone avatar.

Gadgets 360 caught up with Rajnish Kumar, the co-founder and CTO of Ixigo, to learn more about Tara, and how it’s different from chatbots. «Tara is a culmination of all the building blocks and technology we’ve built over the years. Those things had to happen in a certain sequence or order,» says Kumar. «The first few years we spent a lot of time harnessing a lot of data from the Internet, from our partners, APIs etc, and we created a user interface where people could search from a wide set of data sources and find what they’re looking for.»

But what makes an assistant like Tara so different from a typical chatbot though? According to Kumar, the use of AI is integral to Tara, and is driven by the needs of a conversational interface. «You can’t expect a conversational option to push 500 different options unlike a dropdown menu, so there’s a need to know the user much better,» says Kumar. «An AI-driven platform like this also helps avoid the issues of a rules based platform, and what happens is that the more people use Tara, the better she will understand them, and the more personalised she would become.»

In a demo, Tara is quippy and helpful, asking about holiday preferences and making booking suggestions. The assistant knows what your frequent flier details are and asks which dates work best for you, before making a specific suggestion. It looks smart and capable, though one can’t actually be sure until the company launches the feature next year.

With Tara, Ixigo wants to proactively ask you about your plans, make suggestions based on your interests, and try and engage with you. It might start by guessing that since you travel each winter to a beach, you may wish to do so this year too, and make a suggestion — and if you’re interested and start looking into tickets, it might suggest picking the next weekend because its price prediction engine knows that’s when the tickets are going to be cheapest.

To make its suggestions, Ixigo uses a lot of data, from call transcripts, to emails with complaints, to chat histories from customer support. All the data that the company has been able to gather about a user goes into the training model, and the results are a smart interface that can actively reach out to the user with a voice call when they’re free, and engage them in a conversation about booking the next family holiday. At least, that’s the idea.

«All these searches, user interactions, user behaviour was captured in our system that allowed us to build personalisation,» adds Kumar. «And then as technology evolved voice became more mainstream. AI was a big revolution in the last five years. I think because people had enough data to crunch, and computational power became more easily available. I think these were the factors in a lot of people creating very narrow AIs to perform very specific tasks.»

MakeMyTrip is an investor in Ixigo, but it operates independently. To stand out in a market dominated by a couple of big players, Ixigo has instead tried to make use of technology. It rolled out a chatbot to manage questions around travel last year, and even built a price prediction engine to help you save money when traveling. However, with recent developments around voice-powered interfaces, Kumar is betting that this is the future of user interaction.

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«We all know that the UI is going to undergo a paradigm shift, and if you ask me the future is one where the UI becomes much much thinner or disappears, AR combined with voice platforms will make UI completely invisible and conversational,» he says. «Voice as an interface is really really ripe now. If you just think about the Indian context, there is a huge amount of new users that are going to come online — specifically through mobile devices — and it would be a tall order for them to learn the bespoke interfaces of tens of apps. The most natural way for them to interact would be to just ask questions and get answers. Even Google tells that a lot of people do voice-based search, even on YouTube, on WhatsApp.»

It’s a point Google has also raised in general when talking to app developers in India — telling them to focus on Bharat, and make apps for the next billion Internet users. And as an added advantage, companies like Ixigo don’t have to solve for voice from the ground up.

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«We don’t need to solve voice, build our own speech recognition system or a text to speech system — these have already been done,» says Kumar. «What we’ve built with Tara is the advanced natural language understanding we’ve built that’s completely powered by deep learning and the contextual awareness that allows the experience to be hyper-personalised.»

It all sounds very futuristic, but the inspiration for Tara lies very much in the past. «We went back 10-15 years to how people were booking travel back then. And back then there used to be a travel agent who knew you and your family personally, who would give you a personalised experience,» says Kumar. «But he was obviously biased and didn’t have comprehensive data. The way you planned your travel though was very natural. But 10 years later, a lot of online travel portals came in. But they were not very intelligent.»

«Tara is our vision of the future. She doesn’t come with the baggage of a human travel agent,» he continues. «And more importantly, she’s 24×7. Even customer support — our training models are so strong that we’re in a position where we can automate our customer support to 70-80 percent. The possibilities are limitless really.»

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And there’s a case to be made still for travel agents. ‘If you want to today book a trip from Mumbai, six days in Egypt, four days in Madrid, and back, you cannot do that online,» says Varun Gupta, CEO of travel company Goomo. «You need to talk to a travel agent because the number of moving parts you have to manage is… you can disaggregate and buy the different parts online, but it will almost always be more expensive.»

«Also, sometimes people want assistance. India has roughly 20 million outbound departures every year, and 60-65 million passport holders,» adds Gupta. «For a lot of people, going from Ludhiana to Ooty is like going to a place that’s unfamiliar, and they want advice. Then they’ll go to Dubai, Singapore, Thailand, and they’re not sure — when I land there, will I get a taxi, is it safe, is it the right location, are these the right things to see? If you have the time and the intelligence, you can probably figure it out online, but for me, as I’m getting older, it’s sometimes better to ask someone.»

The ultimate goal for Ixigo is to have the AI reach a stage where you don’t need to research options anywhere else. «Imagine a scenario where if you were planning a trip and had to book a hotel, spent a week doing the research and reading up on trip advisor and asking your friends; and in the other universe the system recommended a hotel and it was the same — that is the holy grail,» says Kumar.

Of course, there’s a question about the kind of privacy trade-offs are involved in making something like this genuinely useful, but Kumar believes it’s not a challenge. «People will give away their data, as long as you’re offering a great product that will actually help them.»