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Hollywood-voiced avatar solves citizens’ accessibility queries

An online avatar voiced by an Oscar-winning actor has been created to give disabled Australian citizens information on the country’s National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).

The virtual assistant ‘Nadia’ is voiced by Australian actor Cate Blanchett and is able to answer common questions about the NDIS – a support scheme for Australian citizens under 65 with a permanent disability, replacing a previous national disability scheme. Users interact with Nadia through their computer’s webcam and microphone. This gives the process a human element and means that only minimal keyboard or mouse navigation is needed.

Nadia was developed by Soul Machines, a New Zealand-based company specialising in avatars and artificial intelligence projects. The company was launched by Mark Sagar, a university professor and Oscar-winner for his work on digital visual effects.

To provide Nadia’s voice, Blanchett (who has starred in films including ‘Blue Jasmine’, ‘The Aviator’ and the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) recorded thousands of sentences, which will be cut and combined to form completely new sentences to different questions. Soul Machines say that Nadia’s database of knowledge will increase as she ‘learns’ from more users asking more questions. Visually, Nadia is represented by a lifelike human face, which displays emotions.

Nadia’s design was informed by the NDIS Digital Innovation Reference Group, a collaboration between Australian citizens with disabilities, members of the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA), and figures from the technology industries.

In a video about the project, posted by Soul Machines on YouTube, Maryanne Diamond from the NDIS explains that Nadia was created to help overcome the challenges faced by disabled citizens in communicating with the NDIA, such as inaccessible web forms or letters containing lots of “government language”.

For example, one of Nadia’s pre-recorded sentences (heard in the Soul Machines YouTube video) is: “One of the many reasons I have been created is to get rid of tens of thousands of government forms that often take hours of people’s time to complete.”

Writing on the Soul Machines blog, Louise Glanville – Deputy CEO of the NDIA – said that Nadia will be accessible “24/7” at the NDIS ‘myplace’ portal (for Australian citizens with sign-in credentials) and is designed to meet international accessibility guidelines.

Glanville writes: “She can already understand thousands of questions put to her, and will answer with clear and simple responses. The more interactions she has with people, the more her knowledge bank will grow.”

Read more about the Nadia avatar at the Soul Machines website:
http://eab.li/50 .

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