Improving Existing Public Services

The face of the future

How we helped the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) develop and test a virtual human to assist visitors arriving at Auckland airport

The idea of ‘digital humans’ has existed in popular culture for some time. From ‘HAL’ in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film – 2001: A Space Odyssey – through to more recent imaginings, such as Ava in the 2015 thriller, Ex Machina, it’s like we’ve always known that the lines between humanity and technology would become increasingly blurred  


It’s busy at the border

New Zealand’s biosecurity officers are busy and one small mistake can be costly. Their work is vital to the maintenance and protection of our country’s economy and ecology. So when the Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) saw working prototypes of an artificial intelligence (AI) digital human in 2016, the idea of using this technology at our borders was born.

And when their pitch was made to the Westpac Innovation Fund to help get a prototype and pilot study off the ground, we could immediately see the potential benefits from this project could be quantifiable, and far-reaching – way beyond border security to a range of other government services.   


Say Hi to Vai … New Zealand’s first digital biosecurity officer

After an intensive and months-long period of prototyping, testing, tweaking, refining and training, ‘Vai’ (Virtual Assistant Interface) was deployed in Auckland Airport in early 2018.

Vai can be thought of as a ‘digital human’ – in this case residing on a tall, robust, and accessible kiosk screen. She was built using a combination of 3D video, facial and speech recognition, biometric data and machine learning. And so for a visitor arriving at Auckland Airport, they were able to have a face-to-face conversation with Vai, just as they would talk to a real human.

Vai could see, hear and answer the questions that international visitors asked her – such as: “Where do I go now?”, “What should I declare?” and so on.


The virtual assistant with real world success

Several benefits were realised from Vai’s introduction during the pilot study – primarily the ability for Vai to free up biosecurity officers’ time. This meant they could spend more time dealing with the trickier and more nuanced aspects of their role. Vai was especially helpful during peak times – answering simple biosecurity questions and reducing the time spent by officers answering repeat questions.

Many lessons were learned along the way as well: how people interact with a kiosk in a public space; how a virtual assistant must cope with the quirks and variations of spoken language; responding to different accents; and, future potential for the software.


Back to the future – reimagine, redeploy and rollout

Based on the pilot study and the positive results, Vai’s future may be in the form of a mobile app, so that Vai is readily available to multiple visitors – in any location and at any time. A mobile version of Vai is currently being explored by MPI.

At the Innovation Fund we’re here to help government agencies solve problems and uncover new opportunities using smarter and faster approaches – and Vai is an excellent example of this.

We’re looking forward to seeing how Vai is deployed in the future. The technology could be expanded for use across multiple government agencies at New Zealand’s borders such as Customs, Immigration New Zealand, and the Ministry of Transport.

If there are frontline workers who would like to make better use of their time, Vai 2.0 could be the ideal assistant.

Arriving travellers could still talk to border staff, but they also had the opportunity to ask Vai basic compliance questions

Desi Ramoo, Manager Research, Technology & Innovation, MPI

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