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Her

 “Kia ora, I’m Jamie. Do you have a question about banking for me?”

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Jamie has begun work at ANZ in New Zealand and is already attracting a lot of attention.

"This is a huge opportunity to make a big difference to the lives of people in a very, very positive way.” - Cross

She’s a digital assistant who can help customers with some of their general banking questions. And by that we mean she is a “digital” assistant – if you didn’t pick it up from her picture she’s a genuine avatar.

Jamie was created in collaboration with Soul Machines, an Auckland company pioneering the development of digital humans.

”This is a huge opportunity to make a big difference to the lives of people in a very, very positive way,” Soul Machines’ chief business officer Greg Cross says.

“It’s really an exciting time. The first projects in this area have really only rolled out over the last six months so now we're seeing the first of our creations, our digital children, going to work in their initial roles.”

Soul Machines has created digital assistants for companies including Air New Zealand, software developer Autodesk, British bank NatWest and Daimler Financial Services.

Among its staff are Artificial Intelligence researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists and artists.

Cross says talking - face-to-face communication - is at the heart of what they do.

“We have a need to be able to trust the people we engage with. Whenever you have an important meeting, whether it is a family meeting, or a business meeting, you need a face to face meeting because we have a need to be able to trust the people we are engaging with.”

Yet we live in an age in which increasingly we are engaging with machines.

“We have this very simple view that these machines can be more useful to us if they are more like us, if they are more human like,” Cross says. “We can engage with them.”

Accessible

For companies like ANZ, digital assistants are a way to make the customer service experience more accessible.

ANZ’s Head of Digital and Transformation Liz Maguire says it’s important to remember humans have been talking a lot, lot longer than we’ve been using small screens.

“One of our thoughts going into this was if we could find ways for customers to talk to us, to ask questions, rather than pressing screens, that might be easier for certain groups of customers.“

Cross adds that “If you are a big organisation working with hundreds of thousands, or millions, of customers how do you create a more personal experience?  How do you deliver incredibly specialised information and knowledge to everybody you interact with?”

Soul Machines’ technology is based on work undertaken by its founder Dr Mark Sagar and his engineering team at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at the University of Auckland.

Dr Sagar is a two-time science and engineering Oscar winner for his facial animation work on films like Avatar, Spiderman 2 and King Kong.

A question

Jamie has been programmed to answer questions on 30 of the most frequently searched-for topics on the ANZ Help section of anz.co.nz. If you’d like to chat with Jamie you can click HERE. She has been optimised for desktop, tablet and mobile devices.

Jamie can’t offer specific financial advice to you. But she can answer general questions like “How do I open a bank account?” and “How do I find my customer number?”

You could also ask her what movies she likes, her favourite colour, or what she likes to do at the weekends.

ANZ’s Head of Digital & Transformation Liz Maguire says the bank wants to see if Jamie “will appeal to those who might not be as comfortable using our other digital channels.”

Around 30 per cent of ANZ’s New Zealand customers do not use digital channels, preferring to go into a branch or use a phone to speak to a staff member. Jamie has been developed in collaboration with New Zealand tech company Soul Machines.

“One of the things that is really exciting about this project is that we are starting to understand some of the benefits we can deliver for ANZ’s customers,” Maguire says. “The fact they can talk to somebody immediately” says Greg Cross, Chief Business Officer at Soul Machines.”

“It’s a personal interaction - it is a face-to-face interaction.”

Complement

Around 90 per cent of customers who have spoken to Jamie think it is a good idea for ANZ to introduce the technology. Jamie is intended to complement ANZ’s existing range of customer services, rather than replace them.

The idea is that by having Jamie deal with some of the most common banking queries it will free up staff to spend more time helping customers with questions around topics like retirement saving, mortgages and deposits.

Jamie is still in trainee mode. She is trained from the saved transcripts of conversations she has with customers. She doesn’t learn autonomously yet, to avoid leaning any bad habits.

“How we move forward will be guided by what our customers and staff tell us they want” Maguire says.

VNS

Soul Machines has created what it describes as a virtual nervous system which they have called the Human Computing Engine. It works like a human nervous system, transmitting signals to and from different parts of the body.

The digital humans hear and see the people they interact with, learning from their interactions.

“This is the magic of artificial intelligence.  A.I. based systems learn from every interaction. It means they get better and better” Cross says.

Two years ago Soul Machines was spun out from the University of Auckland, receiving venture funding from some of the leading AI investors in the world including Hong Kong’s Horizon Ventures (an early investor in Siri before it was sold to Apple).

”I think something that is really, really, important to us is this opportunity to bring highly personalised customer service and very specialised knowledge together in a single package because that really democratises a lot of what we all want to achieve.”

Cross believes the opportunities for digital humans are limited only by our imagination.

“We can see a world in which we provide digital teachers to kids who do not have access to teachers and healthcare to people who do not have access to doctors.”

Tony Field is a bluenotes contributor

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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