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Soon, pay utility bills, income tax using your feature phone, thanks to govt’s voice bot assistant

The government is looking to extend the reach of its planned artificial intelligence-backed voice bot from smartphone users to feature phone users for access to various government services.

In emerging countries like Africa and India, battery life becomes an important factor for choice of mobile phone and feature phones have much better battery life than smartphones.
The Umang app currently offers 334 services from 67 Central departments and 17 states, including water, gas, and electricity bill payment.

The National e-Governance Division (NeGD) of IT Ministry is looking to extend the reach of its planned artificial intelligence-backed voice bot from smartphone users to feature phone users for access to various government services, The Indian Express reported based on information sourced under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The government has been planning to launch a bot, similar to Alexa and Siri of Amazon and Apple respectively, for equipping regional language speaking and illiterate population with services such as utility bill payments, provident fund balance, and income tax filings, the newspaper reported in September last year.

The services on smartphones will be available via the government’s Unified Mobile App for New-Age Governance (UMANG) app.

The app, as of now, targets only smartphone users. With voice-based interactions coupled with icons and text-based chat, the app is intended to widen its reach to a much larger user base.

The NeGD had met with technology vendors to explore the available solutions on October 4, the minutes of which were reviewed by The Indian Express. Representatives from 19 companies including Flipkart, Google, Microsoft and IBM attended the meeting.

The app currently offers 334 services from 67 Central departments and 17 states, including water, gas, and electricity bill payment, checking CBSE board exam results, access to pensioners’ fund, income tax, payment, PAN card status etc.

“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 a combination of phone memory and on cloud,” one of the points discussed in the meeting said.

The government in its brief before the meeting said that the service will help target about 200 million users beyond urban areas.

“Multiple language-based search of services is also necessary as it is reported that Hindi user base is likely to outgrow English user base in the next few years along with Marathi and Bengali, the brief said.

The government envisions 1,200 services to be on the Umang app by December 2020. As of September 8, 2018, the app saw around 7.75 million downloads across Android, iOS and Windows platforms.

Some participants of the meeting had concerns about the reduced success rate of speech-to-text conversion on feature phones because of sub-optimal quality of microphones.

The app may go with more than one partners for live deployments to ensure business continuity, service quality, ongoing enhancements, etc., the discussion said.

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