I caught up with Yvonne Soh, the co-founder and CEO of Noodle Factory, a homegrown startup with a mission to transform the way we learn and engage using conversational AI. Find out how she got started, the collaboration with AI Singapore and her plans for the company.
Below is a transcript of the conversation [*].
Basil : Thanks for coming, Yvonne.
Yvonne : Thanks for having me.
Basil : So, Yvonne, you are a self-described dreamer, dog lover, tech junkie and lifelong learner, among other things. Could you tell us even more about yourself? 🙂
Yvonne : Sure! Well, I think the first thing that comes to mind is that I’m not from a traditional IT or even entrepreneurship background. It all started back in school, where in university I actually studied philosophy. So that was my major.
Basil : Oh, so you came from a humanities background?
Yvonne : Yes, correct. So I liked to read, that’s one thing, but in any case, when I started my career, somehow I ended up in an IT career from the start. And I found it to be very interesting. It had a steep learning curve, and I started off doing more general functions like sales and marketing, but I actually went into a more technical function when I joined NCS (National Computer Systems) many, many years ago – I’m not very young right now (laughs). And that’s my other point as well. I think, a lot of the entrepreneurs today, especially in the tech scene are pretty young, sometimes quite early in their careers, whereas I only started on this journey with Noodle Factory a couple of years ago.
Basil : So, what is Noodle Factory? I know that it is engaged in doing conversational AI or popularly known as chatbots. How did it all get started and what is its mission?
Yvonne : Good question. Firstly, I think a lot of people always ask me why the name Noodle Factory and it links to the why and how this got started, because actually, slightly over ten years ago, me and my co-founder started another company called Jam Factory which does training.
Basil : Jam as in the jam you spread on your bread?
Yvonne : Yes! (laughs) Jam Factory does corporate learning and development. We deliver customised, bespoke workshops and training to companies, essentially. And because both of us, me and my co-founder, are from a tech background, we’ve always been really into technology, we like technology and playing around with it, so we always believe that, you know, we’ve all attended so many training where we go, we’re really energised, and then a few days later, we kind of forget everything that we’ve learned. So that’s also how the name Jam Factory came about because we wanted to produce sticky learning solutions.
One of the things that we always did was that with every training workshop, we always coupled it with technology. So, for example, in the earlier days we did things like e-learning, we even had mobile apps to complement the training. And in recent years, we actually started trying to use chatbots, because a better way to complement a training experience is to really extend the learner engagement with the facilitator or the trainer and the chatbot could ideally simulate that virtual mentoring role.
We started doing that about two years ago before we started Noodle Factory, and then we found a problem. Chatbots are great, they can be conversational, but most of them are really bad because they’re very difficult to set up. Most of the chatbots today actually require you to think of the questions and come out with the answers, so you have to think of the entire user flow : what are the questions people could ask and also what are the answers you want to give? That’s actually where we came up with the idea for Noodle Factory, because we were thinking,
Why can’t we just use an NLP (natural language processing) algorithm to read content?
Most of the time, training has content written in some form or other and that material can be used to train the chatbot to answer questions that users might ask. We started looking around and we found some off-the-shelf algorithms done off the Stanford data set. We played around with it. It could do a good level of understanding with basic English text. That’s how we started Noodle Factory, coming out with a chatbot that is not just able to converse, but actually makes things so easy for the administrator to set up that your chatbot can be used not just for FAQs but for anything, including a learning environment.
Basil : So what would the organisation or the user have to do to enable this chatbot. What are the easy steps that they would have to do?
Yvonne : Our vision for it is that essentially, as an administrator, if you think about it, any company or even anybody will have documents – it could be your website, it could be your product manuals, it could be training slides, so what if you could just drag-and-drop any of these content that you want your chatbot to know? Essentially, in the background your chatbot is reading it, understanding it and able to answer questions that your users ask.
Basil : This is very in line with your personal values as a lifelong learner. I think in today’s age, it’s not about getting the information – the information is there – it’s just overwhelming. It is getting the relevant information. I think this conversational AI really helps to narrow down the search space so that you get to the information that is relevant to you very quickly. So this is what you guys set out to do, right?
Yvonne : Yes, that’s exactly it. I mean, over times, I think everyone is changing, especially with technology, and if you look at it now, people’s attention spans are very short. If I go for a class that lasts two days, it’s actually a very long time, and that’s why you see a lot of times people are on the email, on their phones… They are not really paying attention, but yet they want this information. They only want it when they need it, anytime, anywhere. and the chat interface is actually a great way to engage users because, you know, sometimes it is good to read up and learn things, but sometimes the fastest way to learn something is to ask someone who has the knowledge, and that’s what we’re going for.
Basil : Yeah, I suppose, like in the last twenty years with the Internet becoming a part of everyday life, information is at the click of a button. I think we’re moving onto the next phase where we want an intelligent way of getting the information that we really need.
Yvonne : Yes.
Basil : Coming to AI Singapore. So, AI Singapore is running this 100 experiments (100E) programme. This is the flagship programme we are running to help organisations in Singapore accelerate their AI journey. Examples of the ways that we help organisations are to help them deploy AI to improve their productivity or even to introduce new services. I think these two points are actually covered by Noodle Factory in the services that you guys provide in enabling other organisations to deploy a conversational AI. I understand that last year (2019) you got onto the 100E programme of AI Singapore. How did this collaboration come about?
Yvonne : I guess it ties back to my lifelong learner personality, in a sense that, you know, when we started this company we knew there were a lot of things that we didn’t know about, but that didn’t really put us off because it actually excited us, it gave us an opportunity to learn in this space. And we knew that although this was possible, we weren’t really sure how we were going to do it. So, we were trying to find a way to be able to develop what we wanted to develop. We attended some of AI Singapore’s events, one of them was the AI for Everyone, and it so happened that Laurence (Director of AI Innovation at AI Singapore) was the speaker at the event. I actually met Laurence more than twenty years ago when I was at another company. We worked together. At that time we were in a data centre working on physical servers together. And I think we were bidding for a deal together, and that was how I got to know him. So, when I saw him, I was like, “Hey!” We started chatting, and I told him a little bit about Noodle Factory and some of the challenges we were facing. He thought that it would be a good fit for the 100E programme, so we started to explore it a little more.
Basil : So as a result of that conversation, Noodle Factory and AI Singapore embarked on a seven-month collaboration which involved our AIAP, the AI Apprenticeship Programme, where we have apprentices – people who are relatively new to the AI space – to get a chance to work with a real world problem with real world data. How was the experience working with the team in AI Singapore?
Yvonne : I would say that it’s been a really, really good experience. We started initial discussions in March. From then on, it was already very structured. We were told what kind of information we needed to provide, because obviously we are providing the data set from our years of experience with the training company that we’ve had, with Jam Factory. Also, what were the expectations we had, and then what we could expect of the programme, like, who the apprentices were going to be, and essentially how we will be engaging. Once it started, and I think we really kick started the whole thing in May of last year, we had very good and frequent engagements. There were regular sprint reviews which were every three weeks done at either locations (Noodle Factory or AI Singapore), but beyond that there was also constant communication. And I think one of the good things about the programme is that it is not just research based or meant to fulfill certain tasks that we set out at the start. But even over time we kept explaining what was our business vision and how it tied into our overall product and platform. So that was something that the team understood, including the apprentices. So there were always adjustments being made to make sure that you actually met the business objectives as well.
Basil : Seems like it was a very enjoyable collaboration. In fact, I caught up with two of the apprentices, and this was what they had to say about you.
Yvonne was very kind and encouraging throughout the engagement. I enjoyed working with her team and was able to learn a lot about modern NLP concepts thanks to the project.
Working with Noodle Factory was an eye opener, as I got to work on the project from start to deployment.
So this is like what you mentioned. It’s not just research. We are actually deploying real solutions out there. By the way, Cheng Heng is now employed in Wärtsilä, a Finnish firm providing solutions for the marine and energy sector.
Yvonne : That’s good. I think the apprentices were very good. They were very enthusiastic. Obviously, they were all new to the field, but it didn’t feel that way. They were able to articulate and really pick up a lot of new things and contribute a lot to what we were trying to develop. And I think I would say safely that it was a two-way learning which was great because on our side of the Noodle Factory team, we really learned a lot on AI and how to go about the development process and the research that was done by AI Singapore. On the other hand, I hope that the apprentices from AI Singapore also learned not just the AI concepts, but how they apply to real life scenarios as well.
Basil : So now that this has taken off, I must congratulate you because I heard recently that Noodle Factory has won a proof-of-concept with HDB (Housing Development Board). Could you tell us a bit more about this win?
Yvonne : Definitely. It’s a small win, but we are very happy with it, because one of the things that we always tried to steer away from, is that we’re not just a chatbot (company). Although, I think, sometimes you use the word conversational AI, sometimes you use the word chatbot, but essentially, a chatbot generally has quite a bad perception in the market. When you say chatbot, a lot of people are like “uh, no, I don’t need it”, and that’s because they’ve had very bad experiences with chatbots. A lot of times we go onto a website, we ask the chatbot something, it says, “sorry, I don’t understand” or it just throws you back a bunch of links, and that’s actually what we wanted to steer away from. For us, it is not just an FAQ engine that can only respond to fixed things, but really what we actually see it being used for is almost like an information officer that knows everything because it’s so easy to ingest information and automate that whole content curation process.
Why we were so happy about the win with HDB is because they are actually using it in the way that we really envisaged the platform to be used. One of the things is that HDB is already familiar with chatbots, they have chatbots on their website, so it is nothing new to them. And yet, they were looking for a solution where they could also use chat to engage their employees. That’s what we always see our platform becoming. So, when they heard about the algorithm that we have developed together with AI Singapore, on being able to automatically ingest documents and understand it, they were very keen to pilot it for internal use, to train their employees on internal policies.
Basil : So, this is about HR policies?
Yvonne : I think what they’re starting out with are finance policies.
Basil : Ah, okay. So, it’s a lot of very dry documents out there and you have to fish out the relevant information, so it really helps to have a conversational AI to assist you in this.
Yvonne : Yes, and I think with the government there is a lot of information normally written in documents, but a lot of times you don’t really read them, or you read, but you don’t really register it. But when you need the information, you have to look for someone to ask. So instead of trying to ask your finance person or your HR person – they may get a lot of these repetitive questions – if they could automate that whole process by having a intelligent chat agent to do that, that would be great.
Basil : So what are the other organisations which will finding great benefit in implementing a conversational AI within their organisation.
Yvonne : I think that most of the knowledge-based companies, for example, any company that deals with technology, is actually a great place to start, because a lot of them have a lot of information – could be product information, training information, just a lot of information, and the best thing about tech companies is that a lot of that information is already digitised, so we don’t have that problem that they only have paper documents or something like that. So, they could essentially just drag-drop any of their documents and you have that chat agent be trained with all the information, it becomes almost like an information officer within the company. Another case where we feel that there’s a lot of use, is with education. We won a tender recently, late last year with SIM (Singapore Institute of Management). They have two deployments of the chatbot. One is for use as more of a customer service kind of chatbot, which is a typical use case. The other one is very exciting for us. They’re going to use it to almost function as a virtual teaching assistant and it’s going to help the lecturer to teach economics to the students.
Basil : Oh, that’s interesting. I’ve not seen this particular use case before. That means that the lecturer will lead the discussion and the conversational AI will come in to assist in answering the students’ questions. Is that how it works?
Yvonne : No, I think the the classroom engagement will not change. It will still be the lecturer giving a lecture. But a lot of times, I think students need engagement beyond the lecture itself.
Basil : Because the lecturer is only one person, right?
Yvonne : Yes.
Basil : You could have a hundred students out there and there’s no way the lecturer can have a one-to-one with all the students within a certain time frame.
Yvonne : Yes, correct. So a lot of times, a lot of lecturers, they are very good, they actually do WhatsApp with their students, but it’s one lecturer to many, many students, which is not possible. So one of the things that SIM has done, they actually did an internal study with their students, a focus group session on where they think a virtual teaching assistant could help. One of the main things that the students said was, common questions, for example, explanation of concepts – what is the definition of this concept … maybe giving examples related to the concept, even doing little quizzes with them. So almost like a tutor kind of role. So that’s how we are going to deploy a chatbot in their organisation.
Basil : Ultimately, the lecturer will still steer the education, right?
Yvonne : Yes.
Basil : I think this is a very good example of AI (use) … when you mentioned AI, a lot of people fear that it will take their jobs, but actually it really is an assistant. As what Laurence, our director, always says, “AI will not take away jobs, it will take away tasks”. If you can see it in this way, it will not replace your job, but it will replace people who are not able to incorporate AI within their job scope, because they will be less competitive than those who are able to do that. I think this is the direction that we’re going and we want to educate the general public that AI is here to stay and is here to help you do your job better.
Yvonne : Yes, exactly. In fact, it is here to help you do your job better, faster, and also offload things that you actually don’t like to do. For example, if you are lecturer, you probably don’t want to reply to the same question over and over again. (laughs) Same for a HR person or finance officer … or maybe mark quizzes, you know, that could be something that the AI could help the lecturer to do as well, yeah.
Basil : So, what are your future plans for Noodle Factory, now that, you’ve come so far already?
Yvonne : I think one (thing) is that we’re always trying to improve the user experience, both from the administrator standpoint, I think a lot of times we did start from the administrator standpoint – firstly, we wanted to make it easy. That’s why we had the drag-and-drop capability – but I think also from the user experience, because the administrator will only be happy if his users are happy because he spends time setting up this chatbot, so he wants the users to engage it and to really like to use it as well. So, for us, a lot of the focus now is on the user experience, making it very easy. We’re actually in the process of designing a very good wizard that can really enable you to set up a chat agent in minutes. So one of the things that I didn’t talk about earlier is the name Noodle Factory. A lot of people ask, why is the company called Noodle Factory? Apart from the fact that I also like to eat and I like noodles, noodle is sometimes used as the slang for brains. I don’t think it’s very commonly known, but essentially, that’s one of the aims, to really automate that whole process of being able to develop your brains properly as well. Also the other thing, one of the slogans you might see on our website is that it is as instant as a cup of noodles. (laughs)
Basil : That’s my impression, so you have a second explanation, like the brain? 🙂
Yvonne : Yes. (laugh) That’s really what we’re aiming for as well. With the wizard that we’re developing, as well as all the UX improvements, in as long as the time that it takes for you to make a cup of noodles – three minutes, essentially – is the time it will take you to set up the chatbot.
Basil : Oh, that’s really fast. So, for organisations out there, how should they contact you, so that you can assist them, look at their use case and see whether you can help them deploy a conversational AI in their organisations?
Yvonne : Yes. We have a freemium model that we have recently launched. If they go to our website (https://www.noodlefactory.ai/home/), they can click on the Free Forever option and sign up for that. That gives them some limited functionality, but it basically is enough to set up a full fledged chatbot on their website. What we always do is, we focus a lot on the end user experience, so we have a dedicated customer success manager, who basically will follow up with the clients on a regular basis to see how they’re doing with the set up, how is the user engagement and how to improve on that. So that’s available even for the free sign-ups as well.
Basil : Thanks for coming today, Yvonne! It has been really fun talking to you.
Yvonne : Thanks! I enjoyed myself too.
[*] This conversation was transcribed using Speech Lab. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.