China's 'AI butler' start-up Laiye lands funding from Microsoft

Microsoft just made a rare investment into a Chinese start-up. Even the entrepreneur behind it, Wang Guanchun, sounds a bit surprised by who led the series A funding for his app.

“We connect people to local commerce – that’s our goal,” says Guanchun of the mobile butler service, Laiye. The app looks a bit like a messaging app, one where people make specific requests – get me a coffee, book me a flight – which are fulfilled either by a human assistant or an automated AI.

While Guanchun and Microsoft haven’t nailed down exactly how they’ll work together, he sees the two parties benefiting from each other in terms of AI. 

The start-up doesn’t do any of the legwork itself. Instead, it sends service requests – like an order for a hamburger or a ride to the airport tomorrow morning – to relevant providers. If the task can be automated, no human intervention is needed on the start-up’s side.

The AI can automagically command another start-up to get a coffee from Starbucks and send it to your office, but it cannot book you a flight because the process involves a lot of back and forth and other pernickety details.

Back in 2015, the entire thing was free to users – apart from the cost of the coffee or whatever you ordered, obviously – even though every order was passed through an employee.

But now the app – for iPhone, Android, or inside WeChat – is split between free and paid, or “VIP” as it’s called. 

Anything that can be processed by the AI is free, while human involvement on Laiye’s part means you’ll have to pay the butler.

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