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The current state and future of conversational artificial intelligence – an interview with Hicham Tahiri, CEO of Smartly.ai

Chatbots and the artificial intelligence technology that enables them are on the rise and constantly evolving. Described by many as the next industrial revolution, chatbots are capable of providing benefits to a large amount of businesses by helping them (for example) to improve and automate their communication with existing or potential clients.

Taking this into account, Smartly.ai built an artificial intelligence platform that allows users to create chatbots and voice interfaces for connected devices, allowing them to combine smart conversations with a visual editor. Chatbots developed on Smartly.ai can be deployed with all the most widely-used messaging apps, including SMS, Facebook Messenger, Skype, Slack et al, and also with voice command platforms such as Alexa, Cortana and Siri. As artificial intelligence starts to transform our world, Smartly’s goal is to ensure that businesses and developers are provided with the essential tools they need to harness the power of AI to change daily life and release its full potential.

We talked with Hicham Tahiri, the CEO of Smartly.ai, who was recently awarded the title “Alexa Champion” thanks to his knowledge and passion for Amazon Alexa, in addition to his motivation to educate and inspire other developers in the community. Here is the interview:

What was the motivation for starting Smartly and what was the problem you wanted to solve?

We had observed the huge potential of voice interfaces, for example, an estimated 1.8 billion people will be using a vocal interface by 2021! However, previously something was missing to help developers truly unlock the potential of voice applications. The process of creating an application can be quite tricky. You need to master several technical components (voice recognition, natural language understanding, dialog management and text to speech) and have good notion of voice user interface ergonomics. This meant that app builders spent most of their time solving the integration issues instead of building high value apps. We wanted this to change, so we created Smartly.AI, the ultimate toolkit for building voice and text based apps. Our Saas platform was founded with the ambition of widening the access to voice and chat interfaces and introducing conversational intelligence into daily lives of everyone.

Since the early beginnings of Smartly in 2012 a lot has changed and AI has become a trend topic. How are you working with with Alexa and others vocal assistants? 

When Alexa was launched, its openness was a developer’s dream. The Smartly.AI team set to work on creating Alexa Designer, a developer toolbox that offered a visual conversation design tool with automatic code generation and a community-generated intents library, plus a voice simulator, meaning users could speak to the skill directly in the browser without requiring an Echo. Following the arrival of more and more vocal assistants, Smartly AI broadened its scope to incorporate more and more voice (and chat) platforms. Today we support all major platforms including Alexa, Google Home, Cortana, Siri, Facebook, Slack, SMS and more. Plus our API means that you can easily integrate your app with all connected objects.

What makes Smartly AI stand out from competing solutions for conversational artificial intelligence?

Smartly AI offers the most complete solution on the market for developers and companies wanting to create voice applications and intelligent chatbots. From our highly user friendly visual conversation design tool and detailed analytics to our innovative help center and smart bot memory features. Furthermore, our platform does not require any previous developer experience! For example, a users could create a vocal app for a sports media that relays the latest results, prognostics and comments via Siri, in a few clicks!

We were also awarded the title Alexa Champion by Amazon. Alexa Champions distinguishes twenty of the most engaged developers and contributors in the community on a worldwide level.

You have secured €400k in funding last September. What was the most challenging part of the fundraising process?

Convincing European investors to invest in voice while the voice assistant market was purely American was the most challenging issue. We had a real time to market issue that we decided to compensate for by broadening our conversational AI solution to include the chatbot market, which already was already taking off in Europe. Creating intelligent chatbots brings us an immediate revenue stream.

Smartly was accelerated by NUMA. How would you describe your experience with the program?

The experience was game changing! We had the opportunity to meet passionate and talented entrepreneurs, explore the Silicon Valley and pitch our company in front of the best investors! All this helped us greatly to gain traction and raise funds.

Would you agree that the French startup ecosystem is in good shape and on a growth path?

Yes, in recent years France has become a buzzing hub for startups! The government is helping with the FrenchTech Initiative, which pushes French startups onto the international stage with events such as CES. The pool of talent here is just amazing, with top grade engineers, especially in AI, which is a highly mathematical field.

Why do you think there is so much excitement about AI right now? Is it about technology advancement or market readiness?

I would say a mix of both. Things are moving fast in terms of technological advancement, for example computers can now be programmed to ‘think’ like a human with ‘machine learning’, which opens a wealth of opportunities with regard to AI advancement. At the same time the public is also becoming increasingly aware of the benefits that AI can bring, on both a personal and professional level. Consequently more and more businesses are wanting to get on board with AI in order to reach their consumers. Furthermore, AI can also be of great help to the elderly, blind and the illiterate.

What is next for Smartly?

We are launching our new platform at the end of the month, which will set a new standard for conversational AI building platform! As artificial intelligence continues to transform our world, we will ensure that we provide both businesses and developers with the essential tools they need to harness the power of AI to change daily life, at both home and work, for the better.

What is your prediction about the future of AI startups in Europe?

Despite our talented resources and know how, competing with the big American firms will be a major challenge. Though, the emergence of vertically focused AI companies is something I really believe in for European AI startups.

Bojana Trajkovska
Bojana Trajkovska
Bojana is a startup enthusiast from the Balkan region. Currently exploring the entrepreneurial community in Italy. Passionate reader and traveller.

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