Cate Blanchett voices ground-breaking advice avatar

Few legal aid agencies could think of hiring an Oscar-winning actress to provide the voice of an  avatar to answer online questions from the public. Still fewer could link the actress with a successful artificial intelligence expert who is himself an Oscar-winner. However, this option has been open to Australia’s National Disability Insurance Agency. It staged the coup of getting Cate Blanchett to provide the voice for Nadia, who will spearhead a forthcoming revamp of government disability assistance to be rolled out through Australia.

Nadia is an online virtual assistant – a visual Siri – who is planned to write, speak and chat online in answer to questions about a new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). As described by one of the technologists involved, Nadia ‘looks like a person but she’s a super smart computer that responds in a natural way.’ She will have Ms Blanchett’s voice – selected apparently for its ‘warmth’ and clarity – but looks different though naturalistic (she can be seen above).

Ms Blanchett is recording thousands of sentences which will both be used in themselves and also be capable of being cut up into different sounds and reassembled as the system learns. The process can be seen in a youtube video, ‘The Making of Nadia’. She makes a good ambassador for the project, explaining a personal engagement, ‘I have had disability very close to me in my family.’

The technology is provided by Soul Machines, a New Zealand company whose chief executive is Dr Mark Sagar. He can match Ms Blanchett’s two oscars, won in his case for scientific and technological achievements on films like Spiderman 2, King Kong and Avatar. That clearly provided a link for the actress, ‘I heard that Mark Sagar, who is an astonishing computer wizard, was developing the avatar. So I thought the authentic connection of the people who will be served by the NDIS and Nadia, and Mark’s incredible brain, was an exciting combination.’

Mark Sagar began his career as a medical researcher who built computer simulations of the human eye for virtual surgery and has moved on to work on emotionally responsive avatars – currently culminating in Baby X who simulates the way that a baby can learn in a way that can be described as somewhat spooky:

An experiment in machine learning, Baby X is a program that imitates the biological processes of learning, including association, conditioning and reinforcement learning. By algorithmically simulating the chemical reactions of the human brain— think dopamine release or increased oxytocin levels— and connecting them with sensory digital input, when Baby X learns to imitate a facial expression, for instance, software developers write protocols for the variable time intervals between action and response. Effectively “teaching” the child through code, while engineering such a program is no cakewalk, the result is an adorably giggling digital baby with an uncanny ability to learn through interaction.

Mark Sagar regards the visual presentation as important: ‘We have been really looking at the power of the human face as really a new type of computer, a human computer interface.’ The AI input should mean, as Ms Blanchett says, ‘The more people with disability interact with her the more she learns and the better she gets.’

Nadia is planned to go live in around a year. The access to funding for a mainstream government programme has meant that resources could be allocated to its promotion that would be unthinkable in most legal aid contexts. However, the technology is clearly transferable. If Nadia can give you information on Australian disability benefits, she can easily be programmed with a British, American or Indian voice to do the same in relation to any piece of legal information. There is a backlash against the cost of the new Australian scheme but, hopefully for those interested in this element of the project, the major expense of creating Nadia has been incurred and will be immune to any cutbacks.

If successful, Nadia represents an enormous step forward in the provision of online legal assistance. She is foreshadowed by some existing and more mundane developments. British Columbia’s Justice Education Society uses a much more simple visual avatar to give advice in its site on small claims, albeit as just film of a person making a statement. Interactivity – albeit not in the same visual form – is the theme behind developments like the Rechtwijzer and MyLawBC. We inch towards systems where advice and information can be tailored to individual queries; where that advice and information can be demanded and transmitted visually and orally; and where, ultimately, artificial intelligence can be deployed to improve the quality and range of what is provided. The involvement of those in the commercial film sector and the funding of a wider range of government departments opens doors to developments which might otherwise prove unattainable.

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