A group of young robotic engineers is making robots and artificial intelligence a part of Nepal’s business world.
--BY NIKEETA GAUTAM
Built-in intelligence in machines to process information and perform tasks is artificial intelligence or AI. Machines may not necessarily be robots only but even search engines that we use in computers. Today, Artificial Intelligence and robotics have taken centre stage and debates surrounding the risks and benefits of developing artificial intelligence are increasing.
Critics of AI are sure that artificial intelligence will prove detrimental to economies and even humanity. Jobs will diminish. Privacy will fade. Super-intelligence may establish its own world order. On the other hand, supporters of AI believe that civilization will reach newer heights of opulence with the evolution of AI and robots. Healthcare and scientific challenges will find better solutions. Work will become easier. In any case, AI is speedily progressing in advanced economies and it is certain that the world will not remain the same.
At such a juncture, a team of seven young Nepali minds are trying to make their mark in the field of AI and robotics with a vision to benefit societies and help humans thrive. Almost a year ago, they created Paaila Technology that focuses on integrating Artificial Intelligence (AI) into robots and developing human-friendly robots that can supplement the human workforce.
The Formation of Paaila
Sagar Shrestha, Dipkamal Bhusal, Niraj Basnet, Rabin Giri, Wasim Akram Khan are among the six cofounders of Paaila Technology who together studied Electronics Communication at Pulchowk Engineering College. The team was joined by Binay Raut, another cofounder and an MBA graduate from London. During their college days, the team was working together to develop machines that can substitute humans at work. There was no financial incentive and the team was purely driven by their passion for robotics. Paaila Technology was eventually formed, a startup in the field of AI and Robotics.
At the same time, Nepal SBI Bank was looking to integrate robots in its banking system to guide customers in different banking transactions and to enhance customer experience. Their quest for a robot developer took them to the Robotics Club of Pulchowk Engineering College. After the college recommended their names, the team worked hard to meet the idea. The team developed ‘Pari’, a robot, which is currently placed at the bank’s Durbarmarg Office. It was an instant success that drove them to initiate a startup.
“We designed ‘Pari’ in 45 days. It received a warm response among the public and even potential investors which was encouraging for us. We eventually pre-dated our plans to initiate a startup,” shares Sagar Shrestha. Few months later, Ayush Kasaju, driven by his interest in the field joined the team.
The Technical Side
At present, Paaila develops service robots which will augment human work. “We use speech recognition software and speech synthesis to enable our robots to interact with humans, conversation chat buds to enable them to respond to human inquiries, computer vision for grasping information from images,” shares Dipkamal Bhusal. They also use navigation software in their humanoid robots, like the ones used for driverless cars.
“Making a robot for any big company requires 1-2 years of time depending on the scale. The process starts from inception and continues with research and development, designing and ends with fabrication. It is designing that prolongs the process as it may take frequent iterations. Manufacturing is the last phase that takes the shortest time ranging from a day to a month,” Shrestha says about the manufacturing process.
The company was built with an initial investment of Rs 2.5 million. With conceptualisation of each new project that they deem feasible, they have been increasing personal financing.“Our plan is to push our limits for each of our projects and in case we need further financing, we are not going to shy away from bringing in new investors”, says Shrestha, while explaining Paaila’s plan about financial management. Shrestha reveals that after the success of Pari, they received numerous investments and project offers which has provided them a boost in confidence in terms of handling possible financial issues.
Each passing day, they are becoming clearer about their vision and it shows. Initially, Paaila also worked in the area of software development for revenue generation. They later dropped it as it was becoming distractive in the pursuit of their objective of developing robotics.
“The market is nascent in Nepal. It is the best time to start this kind of startup here”, views Bhusal. “At the institutional level, there is a handful of institutions that provide skills and education about robotics. From a commercial point of view, we are the first-of-its-kind to work on robotics and AI which means there is no competition in the domestic market. It is both a challenge and an opportunity for us”, Bhusal adds. Bhusal shares that their team is elated with the number of inquiries they received after ‘Pari’ was launched including from Indian-based companies.
With the objective of developing a world standard robot, Paaila is keenly watching the global market. They believe designing advanced robots will open a door of opportunities for them, especially in the South Asian market. “The whole South Asian market is almost identical in the context of technological progress. Our vision is to reach the major parts of South Asia in five years of time”, Bhusal shares.
Initially, Paaila developed their first robot based on the instructions of a client. Currently, their principal focus lies in developing customizable state-of-the-art-technology. “At present, we are in the research and development phase and fully focused on building robots that can be customized according to the needs of different sectors,” Bhusal shares.
Although Paaila has already been approached by a number of companies seeking quotations from them, they are holding off their proposals for a while. “Our management team is exploring ways to develop opportunities among a diverse clientele”, reasons Bhusal. He informed that Paaila is planning to penetrate into restaurants and hotels and malls and banks. For this, they are developing an interactive customizable robot that will provide information to the visitors.
How Will AI Help Humans?
There is a hot debate about robots and AI replacing humans and jobs. The team of Paaila is updated about the debate, but believes that robots can never replace humans. In Shrestha’s view, there are lots of mundane tasks such as housekeeping, cleaning, serving food at restaurants, which is not so appealing to humans. People perform these jobs for the sake of making a living. If such works are assigned for robots, there needs to be someone to handle the robots. Jobs will automatically emerge.
“With each revolution in technology, the world has changed. But it hasn’t affected the rate of employment. Instead it has created new types of jobs that didn’t exist previously. In the future, mechanical jobs that don’t require any emotional intelligence will be filled by robots. Humans will take over the creative roles,” Shrestha explains.
Shrestha believes that humans, irrespective of their age, have the potential to learn and apply any skill they want to. “We just need to provide technical skills to handle, maintain and repair robots and make humans more tech-savvy. It will help them create a plethora of new opportunities”, Shrestha further explains.
Hiring the best team, perfecting the product and managing the enterprise are essential prerequisites to the success of any venture, be it startups or conglomerates. Paaila finds itself blessed with a strong team who are visionary and passionate. “We mostly have self-motivated, ambitious and competitive people. For a startup, realising immediate financial returns is difficult, especially in the context of Nepal. But our team is dedicated to its vision”, shares Bhusal.“There is a fixed hour for coming to the workplace, but our passionate colleagues voluntarily work at even odd hours”, he adds.
At present, the Paaila team comprises of engineers for software, computer vision, electronics, mechanical and robotics and a team for overall management which also explores potential clients.
Managing initial finances and generating revenue are fundamental challenges startups face. On top of it, starting a tech-based business right after college without any prior work exposure is definitely more challenging. For the Paaila team as well, these were their major concerns. “Stress about financial management is almost unavoidable in startups. When the same startup is associated with AI and robotics especially in a developing economy like Nepal, decision-making becomes tough. It highly bothered us in the beginning,” Bhusal shares. “However, with the success of the first product, we became clear about the prospects and confident about the field we are in. It also resolved our financial worries and we quickly started with other ideas on robotics”, Bhusal explains.
Although Paaila’s initial worries about financial challenges are resolved for now, Bhusal agrees that the road ahead is not easy. Paaila is aware that marketing robots to potential buyers will be challenging. “No matter how world class the robots we develop are, business houses will first need to realise their values in their business”, Bhusal opines. Paaila believes it will be able to crack the challenge in the days ahead by exploring opportunities among diverse natured clients and approaching them with effective pitches.