Published: 09:00, 06 October 2014
A farm shop in Kent is to become the unlikely starting point for the next generation of shopping technology – artificially intelligent chat robots.
Court Farm Butchery and Country Larder will give customers the chance to ask advice from characters on its website when it launches the service at the beginning of next year.
The ‘chatbots’, named Billy the Butcher and Samantha, have been developed over the last seven years by velmai, an online start-up based in Devon, with an office in Kent and 12 servers in Somerset.
Court Farm’s shop, based in Upper Halling, will be the among the first businesses to use the artificially intelligent software – which developers say is superior to similar products developed by Apple, Google and Microsoft, such as Siri and Google Now.
The move came about as owner Andrew Lingham, whose family has farmed the site since 1870, is married to one of velmai’s partners, Tania Peitzker-Lingham, who invested in the group in 2010.
It is hoped the venture will encourage more companies to invest in the software, which has never been used by a small business before.
Mrs Peitzker-Lingham said: “We want to show a small business can use it for a practical purpose.
“The farm shop’s trade has gone up in recent years but their overheads are still high. They have had a jump in sales but cannot afford more staff.
“Billy the Butcher can talk to customers 24 hours a day and help them drive more sales.
“We have been discussing our chatbots with executives from IBM Watson but we thought it would be better to show how a small business can afford one and increase sales without increasing their costs.
“This is a great story for farmers. We don’t expect them to be up to speed with these changes. It is the traditional old economy meeting with new technology.”
The chatbots are powered by velmai’s own algorithm, known as its VAIP (Virtual Artificially Intelligent Patois) code, developed by chief technology officer Darren Lee.
To develop Billy the Butcher – which will look like Court Farm butcher Will Reid – the company needs £300,000.
It aims to raise the money on crowdfunding site Crowdcube, with its business plan going live on the site on Wednesday.
Investor interest indicates they are likely to attract more than £1m of investment.
Mrs Peitzker-Lingham said: “Companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft have not got a clue how to make this technology profitable so they just give it away free on their phones with things like Siri, Google Now and Cortana.
“Siri has backfired on Apple because people are suing them for false advertising. It is not artificial intelligence.
“We are wary of that and over the last seven years we have been developing it and prototyping it. It is about making sure it performs consistently.”
Far from being a gimmick, Australian-German businesswoman Mrs Peitzker-Lingham claims chatbots will help all kinds of retail businesses develop.
Research by English beef and sheep industry body Eblex suggests online shopping for independent butchers is expected to grow by 175% in the next five years.
Yet only 8% of butchers currently offer online shopping, which means Court Farm could be putting itself ahead of the curve.
Mrs Peitzker-Lingham said: “The chatbots will advise you on what cut of meat would be right for a dinner party or what is the best type of venison or joint of lamb for a particular meal.
“It is the kind of advice you would ask your butcher.
“People are used to buying clothes, appliances and devices online because there is not so much trust involved.
“Buying meat online requires emotional intelligence and this is what this robot can do.”
For details on investing, visit www.crowdcube.com.
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