Flipkart acquires AI startup Liv.ai to compete with rival Amazon's Alexa

Indian e-commerce major Flipkart has augmented its capability to roll out voice-based shopping on its platform to compete with rival Amazon’s Alexa by acquiring Bengaluru-based artificial intelligence startup Liv.ai.

The startup, which set up shop in 2015, has built capabilities in speech recognition and translation in 10 different Indian languages. Flipkart says it will use Liv.ai’s voice technologies to reach out to the next 100-200 million non-English speaking shoppers in the country.

The acquisition is Flipkart’s first after US retail giant Walmart acquired a 77 per cent stake in the e-commerce firm for $16 billion. The deal is the largest transaction of its kind in the world and gives Walmart a foothold in the fast-growing Indian e-commerce and retail markets.

In an interview, Flipkart CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy said the voice solutions would not be restricted to a particular form factor such as smartphone or Amazon Echo-style smart speaker. Instead, the acquisition would provide the company with the much-needed capabilities to understand customer queries through voice and in local Indian languages.

Flipkart did not reveal the terms of the acquihire, only saying that the Liv.ai team will form a “centre of excellence” in voice solutions within the e-commerce company. The new team, headed by Subodh Kumar, will now report to Ravish Sinha, who is a Vice-President at Flipkart.

“The next wave of growth of Internet users is coming from Tier 2 cities and beyond, and 70 per cent of these current internet users are vernacular language speakers and this proportion is only increasing. Given the complexities in typing on vernacular keyboards, voice will become a preferred interface for new shoppers,” said Krishnamurthy, in a statement.

While a Flipkart-powered smart speaker isn’t out of the question, the company says it will at first focus on making shopping on its platform easier for non-English speakers. Further, it says it can expand the voice capabilities to its large base of sellers as well as delivery executives who work for its subsidiary eKart.

Krishnamurthy said that Liv.ai was the first company, not just in India but globally, outside of the top technology firms in the world to have built such a capability in voice. 

“Building a voice interface is complex, and is especially challenging in Indian context given multiple languages and accents. We are excited with the opportunity that is being presented to scale this up further and make it available to millions of consumers,” said Subodh Kumar, Co-Founder and CEO of Liv.ai.

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