SYDNEY — Academy award-winning Australian actress Cate Blanchett has crossed into virtual reality, acting as the voice for the digital assistant at the frontline of the federal government’s National Disability Insurance Scheme.
National Disability Insurance Agency deputy chief Louise Glanville said that virtual assistant Nadia would initially provide answers to common questions but over time would develop capabilities to answer more complex enquiries.
“The more interactions she has with people, the more her knowledge bank will grow,” said Glanville.
“She can speak, write and chat online and has been designed to meet international accessibility guidelines. She can already understand thousands of questions put to her, and will answer with clear and simple responses.”
Blanchett, in a ‘making of’ video for Nadia, said that the virtual assistant had the potential to develop into “something very exciting, but also very important”.
“I’ve had disability very close to me and my family, and the idea of having greater direct access for people across the range of disabilities – I was very excited by that idea.
“[Nadia is] a much more democratic and empowering way to deliver a service so people can just get on with their lives and be who they are. The liberating potential of this is really astonishing.”
Nadia, developed by New Zealand artificial intelligence startup Soul Machines, has both a voice component and an avatar that responds with verbal answers as well as feeding back facial expressions.
“We’ve been really looking at the power of the human face as really a new type of human-computer interface,” said Soul Machines chief Dr Mark Sagar, who has worked on Spiderman 2, King Kong and Avatar and has himself won two Oscars for scientific and technological achievements.
Blanchett said that Sagar’s involvement in the project had encouraged her to also take part.
“I heard that Mark Sagar, who’s 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.”
Sagar said that Blanchett’s voice was ideal because it was easy to understand: “Cate’s voice has a natural warmth to it and it’s also very well enunciated.”
In November, Soul Machines raised $US7.5 million in series A funding, led by Horizons Ventures and Iconiq Capital.
The NDIS currently has 40,000 customers, but Nadia has the potential to reach 500,000 disabled Australians in the future.
The project, conducted by NDIA’s Digital Innovation Reference Group, brought together able-bodied and disabled contributors from many different industries, according to NDIA technology authority Marie Johnson.
“This is the bringing together of disability entrepreneurs, the best of the public service, the most brilliant scientists and Academy award winners – a scientific and creative effort that is really about a higher purpose for Australia,” she said.
Glanville said that the virtual assistant would be in a trial environment for a full year while it builds up its experience and knowledge base.
“It will take 12 months and a great deal of interactions with NDIS stakeholders for Nadia to become fully operational. The agency will hold information sessions to inform people how they can engage with and use Nadia over the next couple of months.”