Toronto -based businessman Karan Walia vividly remembers the first time he watched “The Mother Of All Demos,” a 1968 video by first computer engineer Douglas Engelbart famously introducing the world to tools in computing such as mouse, hyperlinks and video conferencing. Watching from a lecture hall at York University in 2009, Walia was surprised to realize how much hadn’t changed.
In fact, 41 years later, he still interacts with computers like Engelbart did, using the mouse, windows and lots of clicking and scrolling. The realization raised a question for Walia: What if people could interact with computers the way they do with each other? After 13 years, he thinks he has the answer.
On Thursday, the 32-year-old businessman announced the launch of his latest venture, an AI-powered smart chat app called Yaar, with cofounders Anton Mamonov and Sobi Walia, Karan’s younger brother. The trio, who appeared in Forbes 2020 Under 30 Marketing & Advertising list, gets $ 20 million in funding from investors including tech entrepreneurs and 2019 Forbes Under 30 lister Praveen Arichandran and Grammy award-winning artist The Weeknd, a silent partner of creative incubator and Yaar investor Hxouse.
“Our goal is to teach computers how to chat and browse the internet like humans,” Walia said. Forbes. “We as a society still communicate with computers using an interface and language that computers can easily understand, and we don’t.”
Walia refused to share Yaar’s valuation or expected earnings. He also declined to specify how much equity he and his founders hold in the company, though he said he holds the most. Yaar is the latest effort for Walia and her cofounders, who first came together to form ad-tech firm Cleup in 2012. The company, which spearheaded advertising campaigns for brands such as Starbucks, Amazon and McDonald’s, were bought by marketing agency Impact Group for $ 40 million in 2018.
Walia’s new app, primarily aimed at employees working in sales or operations fields, aggregates users ’messages from different platforms (such as email, Slack and LinkedIn) in one place —The Yaar app — and then offers users the option to take action based on what’s written. If in an email, for example, a colleague suggests scheduling a meeting, Yaar users can use Walia’s patent-pending AI model called Webagent to search the user’s calendar and automatically generate a response email with a meeting invitation. The model can also order food, summon a rideshare and search the internet, among other activities.
Walia said her model stands alone with AI software because it can turn written language into digital actions such as clicking, scrolling and typing. Yaar’s beta testers — a group of 50 sales and operations workers at many companies — have saved an average of six hours and seven minutes a month so far using Yaar’s automation capabilities, he said. He calls it “the Tesla autopilot of the internet.”
Although Walia insists that her model is unmatched by other AI software – despite having popular AI assistant tools such as Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa – experts say she is entering an increasingly dense field of full of competitors. Companies want 7.ai, Amelia, ServiceNow and Salesforce’s Einstein all use artificial intelligence to automate routine tasks in the workplace.
However, the biggest hurdle in Yaar’s way of success could be its own potential customers, says Will McKeon-White, who researches chatbots and talking AI as an analyst at Forrester Research. He said the app’s friendliness weighs heavily on its impact.
“Usually the biggest hurdle that those faces ultimately is beneficial to the end user and makes a real difference in how they do their day-to-day work,” McKeon-White said. “Chat solutions are very difficult. It’s hard to make them right, and people don’t forgive. ”
Walia agrees that earlier productivity tools didn’t always succeed in their mission to save people’s time, a failure she attributed to a complex user experience. “What is the use of these task management tools if doing my task is going to be a task?” he quipped.
But he said he would not call Yaar a productivity tool. He wanted to think of it as a companion.
“What if getting computers to do things was as simple as talking to a friend and telling them what to do?” he said. “After all, natural language is our overall interface.”