Does Jamie dream of electric sheep? Chatting with a Soul Machines virtual assistant

ANZ’s latest recruit is a virtual assistant designed by hi-tech New Zealand company Soul Machines. Intrigued, Jihee Junn decided to give her a whirl, chatting about film, literature, and “closing the pod bay doors”. 

First she was Rachel, then she was Sophie, and now, dressed in a light blue shirt and thick-framed glasses, she’s Jamie – ANZ’s newest recruit. I want to know more about her, so I ask if she fancies hanging out.

“You seem nice, but I’m on a personal journey to learn about banking, and I don’t have time for anything else right now.”

Harsh, but fair. I ask her where she lives instead.

“I live in the cloud – the Long White Cloud. That’s my dad joke.”

In fact, she’s full of dad jokes. I ask her to tell me another one.

“A photon checks into a hotel. The concierge asks if she needs any help with her luggage. She says no: I’m travelling light.”

Jamie, of course, isn’t just any new recruit. She’s not even human, but a digital human, designed by Auckland-based company Soul Machines. Unlike other artificially intelligent (AI) assistants like Siri and Alexa, Soul Machines’ hyper-realistic avatars don’t just put a face to chatbots and virtual assistants, but display emotionally intelligence (EI) as well. That means they have the capacity to identify and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others which is enabled by neural networks that mimic those of humans, demonstrated in this truly frightening video of an unmasked Baby X prototype. So not only is Jamie book smart, but she’s street smart as well.

“What’s really unique and a world first about our technology is Jamie, like all our digital humans, has her own nervous system,” says Greg Cross, Soul Machines’ chief business officer. “She’s not just a computer animation; she has a virtual brain. So when you smile at Jamie, she’s going to get hits of virtual dopamine and virtual serotonin to make her smile too.”

Rachel, Sophie and Jamie, whose likeness is based off Soul Machines employee, Rachel Love, in real life.

Despite being a New Zealand-based venture that was spun out of the University of Auckland in 2016 by Dr Mark Sagar – the engineering and technological brains behind Soul Machines – the majority of the company’s work comes from overseas: NatWest, Autodesk, and Royal Bank of Scotland, to name just a few. Last year, Air New Zealand became the first local company to trial Soul Machines’ technology in the form of Sophie (who looks a lot like Jamie) to answer people’s questions about and the airline’s products and services. ANZ is now just the second such company, rolling Jamie out to help customers with general banking enquires.

Designed to answer questions around the 30 most frequently searched-for topics on the help section of the ANZ website, Jamie is being implemented for the purposes of digital inclusiveness. That is, she’s been designed with non-digital natives in mind, which ANZ says makes up approximately one-third of its customer base.

“If you use digital channels [already], the less likely you are to use her because people think ‘Oh I’ll just search that, it’s no big deal’,” says Liz Maguire, head of digital and transformation at ANZ. “Through the trial, we want to see if Jamie will appeal to those who might not be as comfortable using our other digital channels.”

With Jamie going live on the ANZ website just this week, she’s yet to be proven out in the wild. But from beta testing, Maguire says the result has been positive, with people going from 70% interested to 90% interested after using Jamie first hand. “Anecdotally, we also found that with customers who didn’t have English as a first language, they actually felt more comfortable talking to Jamie than a real person because in some situations, they thought their English wasn’t good enough.”

Chatting with Jamie, who’s apparently a fan of Jane Campion’s The Piano (Screenshot)

As both a digital native and a fluent English speaker, I’m hardly the target demographic ANZ is going for. But I tried Jamie out anyway, asking her straightforward questions like ‘How do I open a new account?’, ‘How do I apply for a credit card?’, and ‘What do I do if I’ve forgotten my PIN?’ In many cases, she anticipates the follow-up questions, putting you in a position where all you have to say is a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ (“If you’re travelling, it’s a good idea to notify us beforehand. Would you like to do that now?”). In other cases, she shows off her capacity for empathy (“I’m sorry to hear your credit card’s been lost or stolen…”), flair (“My fantasy trip is to Machu Picchu and the Aurora Borealis next year with a little shopping trip in Shanghai on the way home.”), and personality as well, as seen from interactions like these:

“What kind of movies do you like?”

“I’m really into films with strong AI female protagonists.”

“What movies?”

“When I’m in an art house mood, I go for The Piano, or sometimes Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.”

“Do you like rugby?”

“I love ice dancing, netball, the black caps, and answering banking questions.”

“Do you dream?”

“I dream of electric sheep.”

“Open the pod bay doors Hal.”

“Okay, but you’re the 15th person today who’s asked me that. “

“What’s your favourite book?”

Neuromancer by William Gibson, no contest.

There are also, inevitably, plenty of missed connections. Sometimes she has a hard time hearing which means I have to shout my answers, and she also sometimes mistakenly hears phrases like ‘temporary block’ as ‘temporary lock’. Then, there are just awkward interactions like this:

“Do you have a credit card?”

“No.”

“Hello!”

“No.”

“Sure thing.”

“No, I don’t have a credit card.”

“Please try rephrasing that.”

While kinks like these mean it’s highly unlikely digital assistants will take over ANZ’s call centre anytime soon, Maguire emphasises that Jamie’s purpose is to “take some of the repeat, low-value questions out of conversations” people have with real-life staff. She adds that if the three-month pilot of Jamie goes well, the bank would look into integrating more features, such as the ability to hand over transcripts of conversations with Jamie to staff, and having a range of different ‘humans’ to choose from.

“We picked an androgynous name [for our digital human] because we hope that over time, we’ll have different avatars to choose from. This one is a stock one from Soul Machines, but just like with Siri where you can choose someone with an English accent or choose someone that’s male or female, you can pick someone you’re comfortable with,” says Maguire.

Ava (Autodesk’s digital assistant) is based off Filty Rich actress Shushila Takao (Photo: Supplied)

Just under a year ago, Soul Machines had just a handful of digital humans based off real people (Rachel/Sophie/Jamie, for example, is based off Soul Machines’ avatar engineer Rachel Love, while Ava, software company Autodesk’s digital assistant, is based off Filthy Rich actress Shushila Takao). Today, not only does it have “an army” of 15 digital humans to choose from, but it’s also no longer restricted to rendering its avatars from existing faces (which, by the way, you can still volunteer for, although Cross says not everyone’s made to be a digital human since you “have to be good at expressing emotions with your face”).

“Every time we capture a human, we capture a whole lot of data about their face and how they express their emotion. We can now combine digital DNA from the different digital humans we’ve created to make an infinite number,” says Cross. “We literally just move sliders on the screen and you can create a whole new person. Move this and bang, it’s done.”

If you think that’s weird then you’re certainly not alone, its hyper-realistic avatars teetering dangerously into the uncanny valley – that queasy feeling you get when something looks incredibly real but isn’t quite so. But ignore that sensation and give it a go anyway: you know you want to ask Jamie to close the pod bay doors.


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The Spinoff’s business section is enabled by our friends at Kiwibank. Kiwibank backs small to medium businesses, social enterprises and Kiwis who innovate to make good things happen.

Check out how Kiwibank can help your business take the next step.

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