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Bridging the gap one language at a time

Umesh Sachdev at Brew Room. Photo: Shaju John  

You know that nifty little feature called Siri on your iPhone that is the source of great entertainment and information. Or for that matter, S Voice in a Samsung device that functions in a similar fashion, or even Cortana for Windows. These accented voice assistants have come to your rescue when you needed a question answered, or even resignedly given replies to some rather ridiculous queries. But have you ever thought how it would be to use speech recognition to interact with your device in your native tongue? Well, someone did. And went on to create a software that enables even rural India to use speech recognition to get basic tasks done using a phone.

Today, with over 70 enterprise customers, and a software that enables speech to transform human-machine interaction, Uniphore has touched millions of lives. Think IVR systems for phone banking, Jan Dhan programme or customer care services. Ever since Umesh Sachdev, along with co-founder Ravi Saraogi, envisioned building a product with a rural focus, Uniphore has successfully addressed language barriers. Now, even a farmer in a remote Indian village can carry out financial transactions in his own language through his phone.

Little wonder then, Umesh was named one of the 10 Millennials Who Are Changing the World by TIME magazine this year. In fact, he happens to be the only Indian and only technologist to have figured on the list that features individuals from all walks of life. The Chennai-based entrepreneur, however, prefers to keep his head down and continue forging ahead. “It is of course a matter of happiness and it really happened out of the blue. One fine day when I was travelling, I received a Twitter message from the magazine, asking to be interviewed for this list. Definitely not something I was expecting; it’s very humbling. We did pause to celebrate. But then we also realise that this only goes to reinforce that we need to keep going and scale up our pace,” says Umesh.

According to the entrepreneur, this is just the beginning. “We are already impacting millions of lives in India and hope to take that reach to a global level,” he says.

Umesh’s journey with Uniphore began in 2007, when he and Ravi moved to Chennai from Delhi to work out of the IIT-Madras incubation centre. “We’d lived in Delhi all our lives and after completing our Engineering, we decided to go down the entrepreneurial path. Our first venture was a company called Singularis, a mobile location-based service. But we soon realised that it wasn’t scaling to our expectations. It did provide us good experience and learning, though,” he says, adding, “We were in touch with Prof. Ashok Jhunjhunwala at IIT-Madras and he told us, ‘You have a flair for technology, but you lack experience from the business point of view.’ That’s when we decided to move here and work with him.”

Given that their entire lives until then had revolved around the Capital, the shift to Chennai was a big move. “It was a big decision. But it was also a sort of last attempt at entrepreneurship. We were just a couple of guys who’d launched our start-up straight out of college. No higher studies or jobs had been even considered. So we decided to give our next venture a shot for at least six months. If it didn’t work, we thought we’d go back and do either MBA or get ourselves corporate jobs,” he laughs.

But then, he says, entrepreneurs are just wired differently. “We gun after something that we are intent upon.” As they set about work in Chennai, they visited villages in the State despite not knowing a word of Tamil. The idea was to understand the digital divide between rural and urban India. “It was important research. We realised that this divide was largely due to lower literacy rates, and more importantly, language barriers,” he explains.

That’s how they decided to set up Uniphore to bridge the language divide and make technology more accessible. “We tried out the call centre model with different languages, but it doesn’t work out economics-wise. We decided to replace humans with machines and that set the ball rolling.”

The company was formally set up in August 2008. Their first challenge was to get the technology right. “We had to get the technology to work with the top 10-12 languages, including its dialects. In our case ignorance was bliss. We didn’t realise how hard it would be to do this and just forged ahead. Our next challenge was to get the word out. Given that ours is not a consumer application but for business establishments like banks and hospitals, we had to convince them.” In fact, people are still surprised that such a product exists. But then speech, says Umesh, is the lowest common denominator in human life. “Nothing will get smart with just keys or a touch pad. Speech is the most important part.”

Did they ever envision the kind of success they’d taste with Uniphore? “Yes and no actually,” says Umesh. “We knew that we only wanted to attempt something that would be big and would make a difference. Something that is the first of its kind and applicable globally. At the same time, we never thought we’d make it this big. When we started out, it was really like driving through fog,” he laughs.

They knew their product was working a couple of years after inception. And of course, there’s been no looking back since. The company now offers 35 global languages, including dialects, and has a presence in South East Asia and in West Asia as well. “We are now working towards making our presence felt in the Americas and Europe,” he says.

Currently, Umesh is rather excited about getting his hands full with Artificial Intelligence. “We’d like to do something that will marry AI with language. Now, that will be a powerful tool,” he smiles.

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Outside of work

The Delhi man has made Chennai his home for the last nine years. “The city has changed tremendously over the years. And now, it’s simply home,” he smiles.

When Umesh isn’t working, he is an avid traveller. It helps that he travels a lot for work, but he makes it a point to set some time aside to explore places. “I don’t get much time outside of work, but then when I do, I spend it with my wife and two-year-old daughter. We love to travel as a family and take regular vacations.”

Umesh is also passionate about automobiles. “If I am ever done with Uniphore at some point in the distant future, then automobiles is something I’d explore,” he says.


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Printable version | Oct 19, 2021 6:14:57 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Bridging-the-gap-one-language-at-a-time/article14485056.ece

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