What can unite Avatar’s creators, Cate Blanchett and presence-evoking  technology? It is Nadia! And it’s not a movie.

Soul Machines: Virtual Assistant Nadia

 

Soul Machines

Soul Machines is a company which develops an artificial intelligence and emotionally responsive avatars technology. The first project of the company “Baby X” was created by the CEO of Soul Machines Mark Sagar. It is an emotionally intelligent virtual infant. The baby not only expresses emotions, but also interacts with a user in real time.

Soul Machines: Baby X Project

“Just about everybody who sees it is absolutely amazed that it’s actually a digital creation and not a video image of a baby,” Soul Machines chief business officer Greg Cross says. If you are not impressed by “Baby X”, look at these incredibly realistic (and creepy) projects of Soul Machines.

Soul Machines' Project. VR

Soul Machines' Project. VR

Who (or what) is Nadia?

One of these artificial intelligence projects is called Nadia. She is the first commercial project to be launched with Baby X’s technology. It is the brainchild of Mark Sagar and his New Zealand startup, Soul Machines. As the name suggests, even though you know robots can’t have a soul, Nadia’s mimic, questions and answers make her very relatable. This can take you aback at first, until you remember Sagar was one of magicians who humanized the creatures from Avatar and King Kong.

Soul Machines' Project. Avatar by Mark Sagar

How the project was created

The project took 12 months from start to finish, with people with disabilities involved throughout the entire process. Nadia was developed in collaboration with National Disability Insurance Scheme, which provides support for Australians with disability. The NDIS brought on Australian actress Cate Blanchett to be the human voice behind the avatar.

Soul Machines: Virtual Assistant Nadia. Cate Blanchett

 

Blanchett was recorded saying thousands of sentences containing various phonemes, which can then be repurposed and made into new content for the avatar.“I think it’s really good chance to bring something very exciting, but also very important,” – says Cate Blanchett, the voice of Nadia.

 

Person or robot?

Soul Machine’s avatars, such as Nadia, are created using incredibly detailed physiological models, with every bone structure and muscle moving exactly as it would on a human.The avatars even have their own version of a central nervous system that imitates the capabilities of the human brain to make it more realistic.

Soul Machines: Virtual Assistant Nadia

“The core theory behind our technology is our faces are the mirror image of our brain. You can’t create a realistic face without creating models of the human brain as well,” – explains Soul Machines chief business officer Greg Cross. “Our avatars also have a breathing model because when we speak as human beings, we have to manage our sentences based on when we have to take a breath, so our tone of voice or expression on our face may change slightly,” – he adds.

 

Nadia in action

The way Nadia works is when NDIS customers go on the company’s website, they can choose to interact directly with her.The webcam on their computer will act as “the eyes” of Nadia, while the microphone will act as “the ears”, resulting in a human-like conversation with an online avatar”, – Cross says. Nadia is equipped with emotional intelligence allowing her to connect with people on a much deeper emotional level than the ordinary chatbot. And because it is powered with AI, Nadia learns through experience. That means the more she interacts with people, the more her knowledge grows and the better she responds.

For instance, if Nadia detects that you’re upset about something, she may respond instantaneously to be more empathetic. “This is the way in which we’re utilizing the human face as a next-generation leisure experience between humans and machines.” – the developer explains.

 

Design

Nadia is designed to resemble a real person in looks. “She looks like computer, but she is super smart computer that response in a very natural way.”– says Marie Johnson, technology authority NDIA. Soul Machines’ leader Mark Sagar expertise makes Nadia incredibly life-like, almost to the point where it gets kind of creepy. But fear not, Nadia is actually pretty nice. She doesn’t want to start a robot rebellion or kill all humans. Instead, she has dedicated her ‘life’ to helping people with disabilities.

 

The aim of Nadia

The purpose of Nadia’s creation is to take chatbot service to the next level by humanizing the interaction between man and machine, basically by making them more like us. “In many ways Nadia is a game changer” –  believes Marie Johnson, technology authority NDIA.

Soul Machines: Virtual Assistant Nadia

With the help of Nadia Australian government hopes to improve services for people with disabilities, making the process of finding the information people need easier. “People with disabilities often have a hard time dealing with the bureaucracy of NDIS due to its complexity and slowness. Nadia was created to fix all that and make a more human service available anytime and anywhere” – says Johnson.

 

Soul Machines’ future

“Deliberating potential of the project is really astonishing,” – shares Cate Blanchett. And it’s really so. However, some risks also exist. In the hands of the wrong person, artificial intelligence system can be programmed for cyber-mobbing or hacking. In addition, it can get out of human’ control.

As Nadia was created as a chatbot, people with disability can take her not for a service, but like a friend. The outcome of these robot-person relationships is shown in the film Her. The truth is the edge between using artificial technology for good and bad purpose is really blurred. We can’t predict the future and say, whether robots improve our life or take control in their hands. Hopefully, in a few decades Nadia will still help us, not we serve her.

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