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Govt’s planned voice-based AI bot may be available in feature phones too

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In what could double the reach of the government’s planned voice-based bot powered by artificial intelligence, the National e-Governance Division (NeGD) of IT Ministry wants the service to be available for feature phone users too, apart from smartphone users, according to information obtained by The Indian Express under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

In September last, this newspaper had reported that the Centre is planning to develop a voice-based bot powered by artificial intelligence on the lines of Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa to facilitate access to government services such as utility bill payments, provident fund balance and income tax filings for regional language speakers and the illiterate. To explore the available solutions, the NeGD held a meeting with technology vendors on October 4, the minutes of which were reviewed by The Indian Express.


The UMANG app currently offers 334 services from 67 Central departments and 17 states, including services such as bill payments for water, electricity, gas, mobile, broadband, apart from crop insurance, soil health card services, agricultural advisories and weather forecast services.

The October 4 meeting was attended by representatives from 19 companies including technology majors such as Microsoft, IBM, Google and Flipkart. Currently, the UMANG app targets smartphone users and the Certre is now looking at providing voice-based interactions, in addition to icons and text-based interactions with users. This is largely to enhance user experience and, therefore, the usage reach of the app to a much larger base.

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“This feature of AI-based voice assistant can be extended to feature phones, primarily, through toll-free or normal telephone lines; user behavioral learnings to be stored in combination of phone memory and on cloud,” one of the discussion points of the meeting said.

In India, currently, feature phones and smartphone shipments are nearly neck-to-neck. Prior to the meeting, the NeGD had laid down some basic requirements for the voice service. The brief had pointed out that the facility should be such that AI-powered voice bots can be developed and trained to specialise in interactions between the user and the government along with integrating tools such as speech-to-text. Some participants of the meeting also raised concerns over the reduced success rate of speech-to-text conversion on feature phones because of sub-optimal quality of microphones.

During the workshop, it was discussed that five vendors — Microsoft, Bengaluru-based Reverie, Hyderabad-based Quadratyx, Flipkart and IBM — have end-to-end integrated solutions for AI-based voice bot. The discussion points also mentioned that UMANG may go with more than one partners for live deployments to ensure business continuity, service quality, ongoing enhancements, etc.

Private companies are already pushing for voice-based services to bolster growth in smaller parts of the country. Microsoft is leveraging AI to enable a Hindi language user to communicate with computers and work with digital tools across its Windows 10 and Office 365 products.

Online retailer Flipkart last year acquired an artificial intelligence-based speech recognition start-up, which has developed a speech-to-text platform that supports 10 Indian languages. Flipkart expects the acquisition to help the company in targeting the next 100-200 million users beyond the large metro cities.