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Armed with 10 years' data, Flipkart to go big on 'AI for India'

21 December 2017

India's largest online retailer Flipkart is making an ambitious push in the area of artificial intelligence by carving out an internal unit called AIforIndia, which will be overseen by its most senior business and technology leaders, as it attempts to put machine learning and AI at the core of its business.

There might come a day in the near future when you can order shirts from Flipkart using a voice assistant in your mother tongue or have an AI-based visual similarity search. These could well be the results of the homegrown ecommerce company's newly-coined umbrella theme 'AI for India', says an Economic Times report.

In an interview with Mint, Sachin Bansal, co-founder and executive chairman of Flipkart, said the e-commerce firm will invest ''hundreds of millions of dollars'' in the AI initiative over the next few years. He said Flipkart has begun recruiting dozens of AI experts, building infrastructure, striking hardware partnerships and working with top educational institutions, including IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology), to make its AI push successful.

He also said Flipkart is looking for AI-related acquisitions in India and in the US. In 2015, Flipkart had acquired the F7 Labs in the Silicon Valley to focus on areas such as AI and machine learning.

The new AI team will be headed by chief data scientist Mayur Datar with Bansal and Flipkart chief executive Kalyan Krishnamurthy directly working on some key projects.

The company is all geared up to double down its work with artificial intelligence technologies, across operations including conversational search, visual similarity, better last-mile delivery, fraud detection, personalisation, and warehousing.

This broad intent stems from the fact that Flipkart, in its decade-long existence, has collected enough unique 'Indian' data to build various algorithms. It believes that a 'one-size-fits-all' approach will not work in India. In fact, it is already running specific projects across the board using AI.

"Right now, the use of AI is moderate. There are some interesting projects in the marketplace, customer support, search and personalisation. You will see much more innovation coming out of Flipkart in the next year ... this is going to be a big game changer for us," said Bansal.

 ''This is the next big thing for us, where we are betting big on the use of AI and machine learning to solve problems at Flipkart. India's problems are unique and we need to apply AI in the ecosystem to solve Indian problems. We believe that some of the focus areas for AI in developed countries cannot be applied for India. At Flipkart, we will solve problems differently because the underlying problems (in India) are different,'' Bansal said.

Flipkart will apply AI in a wide range of areas both on the consumer facing side and on its supply side.

''We believe almost everything about ecommerce is different - whether you talk about how consumers interact with Flipkart on the app on their devices, to how deliveries happen to customers, to how they get active customer support, to how we're doing our inventory management, to how we do our supply planning, etc. These are huge problems that we have at Flipkart-we believe we can apply AI and machine learning to all of these problems,'' Bansal said.

Apart from this new initiative, Bansal has also been playing a more active role inside Flipkart and has built a new budget brand called Billion across several categories including smartphones, home appliances and fashion.

Over the past couple of years, Flipkart has built out solutions and services around AI, Big Data and machine learning in order to gain insights into consumer shopping habits. For instance, based on insights gleaned from the use of AI, Flipkart has worked on optimizing prices of products, based on customer demand, while also applying those insights in areas such as logistics in order to better manage its own supply chain.

Flipkart chief technology officer Ravi Garikipati has been tasked with leading Flipkart's push into fintech.

''We've been doing machine learning at Flipkart for the past two years, but it's been growing at a slow pace. It was not a focus area from the top. But now, we will bring a lot of focus internally where we will start applying AI much more aggressively in multiple areas within the company-not just at Flipkart, but also at PhonePe and Myntra as well. We are also going to hire more aggressively from outside,'' Bansal said.

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