Kiwi students will be the first in the world to have a digital teacher enter their classrooms.

The digital teacher is unlikely to replace flesh and blood teachers any time soon, but the Auckland software company which created the avatar sees education as a key future use of their technology.

Will, a digital human avatar will teach primary school students about renewable energy as part of a free education programme offered to Auckland schools by Vector.

“He’s there, looking at us, like a real human.”

Vector’s chief digital officer, Nikhil Ravishankar, said using new technology is critical to having better conversations with current and future customers.

“What was fascinating to me was the reaction of the children to Will. The way they look at the world is so creative and different, and Will really captured their attention.”

Students can interact with Will to find out about wind turbines, solar energy and other renewable types of energy. He can respond to their answers on topics he tests them on, as well as to their body language. If they smile at Will, he smiles back.

Children trialling the programme said talking to Will was different to talking to other artificial intelligence systems, such as Apple’s voice-based assistant Siri because you could see and interact with him: “He’s there, looking at us, like a real human.”

It’s this two-way interaction, including non-verbal communication, which sets this avatar apart. Auckland-based company Soul Machines is the only company in the world which has developed autonomously animated avatars.

“It’s a well-known fact we don’t have enough teachers in our schools anymore. We can pick up the newspaper and read about schools in communities outside major cities who can’t attract teachers.”

Soul Machines chief business officer Greg Cross said kids who have grown up in an era of smart phones adapt to new technology quickly.

He’s excited about opportunities for digital humans in education.

“It’s a well-known fact we don’t have enough teachers in our schools any more. We can pick up the newspaper and read about schools in communities outside major cities who can’t attract teachers. At the same time, you can read about schools in Auckland losing teachers because Auckland is too expensive for them as a city to live in.”

Plugging the gaps where specialist teachers are in short supply is another area where Cross thinks digital teachers could play a role.

“It’s well-documented there are a shortage of STEM teachers in high schools today. The concept of being able to use digital teachers to provide access to teaching and access to education to kids and communities which might not have access to real teachers we see as being a hugely important role these digital humans could play.”

The avatars use what Soul Machines call an Artificial Nervous System. Using a webcam and microphone it can react to a user’s emotions and is programmed to respond based on these.

Cues to how well a student is understanding material can be picked up on by the avatar.

“The digital human can recognise when you are smiling, recognise when you are getting upset, recognise when you are getting frustrated.

“It can become a very personalised teaching experience at that point.”

Soul Machines has eight different projects with customers like ANZ and Air New Zealand either launched or announced. Another 15 to 20 are under development.

Much like going to a modelling agency, customers can choose a digital human from a catalogue of fifteen different digital humans. Each has been modelled on a different real-life person but can be programmed to have different languages and accents.

Will is one of fifteen digital humans in Soul Machines’ catalogue. Photo: Supplied

“A single digital human can even have multiple personalities. You can imagine the way you might interact when talking to children is a different personality you would use when you are interacting with a professional business person in their 40s or 50s.”

Applications for Soul Machines’ avatars to put a human face on interaction with computers stretch beyond education.

Cross said the company has been working with Dr Lance O’Sullivan and the iMoko team on a healthcare application including an avatar.

Customer service is another area where digital humans can be utilised. Basic queries can be immediately dealt with by a digital human rather than relying on call centres with queues of customers.

In the long-term Cross said the technology will have an impact on the entertainment industry.

“Essentially what we have done with our Artificial Nervous System is created a platform for autonomous animation.”

He suggested new technologies such as virtual and augmented reality could one day team up with the digital humans to offer an immersive entertainment experience where viewers could impact the story line.

Currently the avatars which Cross describes as hyper-real don’t look completely human-like but that is likely to change in the future.

“We don’t claim they are 100 percent replicas at this point in time. We obviously continue to strive to make them better. Our core technology continues to change and get better literally on a month-by-month basis.

“We and our customers are always very clear to people who are interacting with digital humans that they are actually digital humans and not real people.”

Watch: Students trial Will

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