It's been a good year for Flipkart -a fresh infusion of funds, a new CEO at the helm of affairs and reportedly trouncing Amazon in September, during the biggest sale battle of the year. India's biggest e-tailer, not one to rest on its laurels, is now turning its sights on putting artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning at the core of its business.
In an interview to Mint, Flipkart co-founder and Chairman Sachin Bansal said the homegrown e-commerce firm will invest "hundreds of millions of dollars" in the AI initiative over the next few years. "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," he said, adding that Flipkart has already begun recruiting dozens of AI experts, building infrastructure, striking hardware partnerships and working with top educational institutions, including the IITs, to make its AI push successful.
The AIforIndia team will reportedly be headed by chief data scientist Mayur Datar with Bansal and CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy directly working on some key projects.
Flipkart plans to apply AI in a wide range of areas, both on the consumer side and on its supply side. "We believe almost everything about e-commerce 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 told the daily.
The etailer claims to already have a lot of work going on in image recognition, speech recognition, text recognition, as well as personalization, search and recommendations. "We're also applying AI in areas which are not visible to customers like customer service, warehousing and logistics. Then, we are doing some interesting work around product discovery, intent modelling and ensuring our products are bought by genuine buyers and not resellers. Towards that end, we are working on an ML model for classification of a transaction as fraudulent or not," said Bansal, adding that leveraging AI in the delivery side, such as optimizing last-mile connect, is another focus area.
However, AIforIndia is not Flipkart's first foray into the realm of AI. The company had first revealed its plans to experiment with AI in 2015. In an interaction with Inc42 Media, then Chief Product Officer Punit Soni had said that Flipkart will become more mobile-centric through the adoption of newer technologies such as AI and social networks. The same year, it acquired the F7 Labs in the Silicon Valley, where a team of data scientists and data engineers are currently focussing on building AI-based products. At home, Flipkart's fashion unit Myntra introduced Artie, an indigenously developed smart bot that gathers consumer insights to create a range of on-trend, fast fashion apparel under the 'ModaRapido' brand.
The company has also been running Project Mira, a conversational AI search experience, in stealth mode since last year. Then there is its partnership with Microsoft, announce in February this year, to reportedly deploy machine learning and AI-based solutions to run future sales for the unicorn.
"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 told Mint.
Its biggest rival, Amazon, too has invested extensively in AI to improve its marketplace so Flipkart can't afford to slacken its pace. According to global financial services firm Morgan Stanley, India's e-commerce sales are expected to grow at a 30% compound annual growth rate through FY2027. And Flipkart is hoping that AIforIndia will give it an edge in the battle for eyeballs.