Making Chatbots in Shanghai

PhD student Michael Mersiades spent a month in Shanghai working for a startup company, thanks to the China Mobility Program.  A self-confessed language geek, Michael found his skills were in demand.

I was both excited and worried. I had just found out that my application for the China Mobility Program had been successful and UQ Idea Hub was sending me to Shanghai for a month to do an internship in a startup company. It was a wonderful opportunity for me, especially as I had my own startup ambitions. However, the startup world is usually associated with business, IT and engineering students. I'm doing a PhD in Applied Linguistics at the UQ School of Languages and Cultures. What could a language geek like me possibly contribute to a startup in Shanghai?

Several days later, I found out that I had been placed in a company called Rikai Labs. Their website told me that they specialise in making chatbots.

Chatbots? Really? But I don't know anything about chatbots!

A video conference with the Rikai Labs founders was scheduled a week before departure. I was dreading the meeting – anticipating a long discussion of all the things I couldn't do for their chatbot startup.

It turned out, however, that Rikai Labs were in need of my expertise. They were working on a project called Teacherbot, a chatbot that lets Chinese English learners practice their English on WeChat (the Chinese messaging-and-everything-else platform). They wanted to improve on their first Teacherbot iterations, so we spent several hours discussing what directions to take the project in. My role was to find a way to structure a Teacherbot experience that maximised language learning and kept the learners engaged.

When I arrived in Shanghai, we immediately got to work experimenting with our ideas from the previous week. They taught me how to program chatbots, and within a week I was applying my expertise of language learning and my imagination to help create chatbot English lessons.

Those who know me know that I often complain about how poorly languages are taught in general, especially online or through language learning apps. It felt good to help rectify this problem and create a new method of language learning that upheld many of the language learning principles I subscribe to.

Over the four weeks I was at Rikai Labs, we experimented with a few different lesson formats, tweaking as we went. By the time I left we had seen a significant increase in learner retention rates, suggesting that Rikai Labs had hit a formula that could become a viable business.

The best news came on my last day at Rikai Labs. The founders asked me if I could find time during my busy PhD schedule to continue to advise them on Teacherbot. In return, they said I could use their WeChat chatbot platform for my own purposes. I had my own idea for a language learning service, and using their platform would allow me to test that idea out at no cost, to see if I had a valid business idea worth pursuing.

In the end, and despite my initial anxiety, I got a lot more out of the China Mobility Program than I had even dared to imagine. I was also able to contribute a lot more than I had expected.

My thanks to Edaan, DC and the rest of the gang at Rikai Labs, and to Nimrod and Ideahub.

Follow Michael's entrepreneur journey on Neon King KongFacebook and Twitter.

Last updated:
13 September 2017