PRESS: UniServices invests US$2m into its world leading AI company Soul Machines™

Auckland, New Zealand | October 29, 2018

UniServices has followed Mercedes Benz’s investment into Soul Machines™ with its own commitment of US$2m to a US$15m+ funding round announced recently by the company.  UniServices, which owns 15% of the company, made the investment through its $20m University of Auckland Inventors Fund.  Soul Machines™ was spun out of the University of Auckland in July 2016 with a Series A investment round by some of the world’s leading AI investors. 

The University of Auckland Inventors Fund was formed in 2016, with capital provided from UniServices’ retained earnings from its commercialisation business.  Designed to fill a gap in the market for very early-stage capital in deep-tech IP based businesses, and to foster academic  and student entrepreneurship, the Fund is typically the first investor in University-derived start-ups. It syndicates with local and global investors, including Horizon Ventures, Brandon Capital and the IP Group, that collectively have over $1bn of capital.  

The Fund is designed to create more “stickiness” of start-ups to the local economy and ecosystem and to develop more home-grown entrepreneurial, product development, start-up management and start-up governance talent.  

Soul Machines is exactly the kind of company that the Inventors Fund is designed to support. It has world leading, deeply transformative IP, with a long term vision that will require patient capital to, potentially, deliver superior returns in the long run. The Inventors Fund demonstrates that the University of Auckland is prepared to back its own technology,” Andy Shenk, CEO of UniServices. 

Greg Cross, Chief Business Officer of Soul Machines™, commented it’s great to have UniServices continuing to support the company alongside Mercedes Benz and Horizons Ventures. “New Zealand needs more technology companies based on deep research and Intellectual Property. The University of Auckland and UniServices are making a massive contribution to developing the ecosystem required to create more companies like us.”


About the University of Auckland 

The University supports economic growth locally and nationally through innovation and entrepreneurship, creating quality jobs and high-value businesses, producing graduates that contribute to and strengthen our economy and society, to the benefit of all.  The University of Auckland is New Zealand’s world-ranked university. It is the leading New Zealand university in the QS World University Rankings 2019 and the highest ranked New Zealand university in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings. 

About Auckland UniServices Limited 

At UniServices, we bring ideas to life. We partner with the best minds at the University of Auckland to apply intelligent thinking to ideas that have the potential to change the world.  Together with our partners, we look to the future, imagine the possibilities, and innovate for public and private good. For over 30 years, we’ve collaborated with hundreds of organisations on thousands of projects in New Zealand and around the world.  We are the most innovative university in New Zealand in Reuters’ Top 75: Asia’s Most Innovative Universities rankings. We have also been identified by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) study as one of the world’s leading entrepreneurial universities “under challenging conditions” (MIT Skoltech Initiative).


Read all the latest media coverage here.

UniServices invests US$2 million into Soul Machines

 

Soul Machineson a hot streak as more firms invest

 

Soul Machines’ exec responds to Hoskings hit, reveals big investment from Siri backer

The University of Auckland’s commercialisation arm UniServices also joined the latest Soul Machinesfund-raising round

PRESS: Global media coverage on Daimler’s investment in Soul Machines™

The world is responding to the announcement by Daimler Financial Services of their investment in Soul Machines™. Read all the latest media coverage here.

Emotional Intelligence: Daimler Financial Services invests in Soul Machines

Daimler Financial Services makes strategic investment in New Zealand-based company Soul Machines™ to further develop artificial and emotional intelligence for multi-channel, customer-service pilot.

Daimler Financial Services Invests in Soul Machines

Daimler is one of the first premium brands in the automotive sector to develop emotional intelligence use cases based on Soul Machine’s technology.

Kiwi digital avatar creator Soul Machineswins Daimler investment

Leading New Zealand digital business avatar creator Soul Machines™ has a “significant” new shareholder, the financial services arm of German premium carmaker Daimler AG.

Daimler invests in NZ avatar developer Soul Machines

The investment would put the company in a better position to quickly develop and test its technology in the automotive sector.

Digitale Menschen als Kundenberater: Daimler investiert in Emotionale Intelligenz

Daimler Financial Services, die Finanzsparte des deutschen Autokonzerns, beteiligt sich am neuseeländischen Start-up Soul Machines™.

German automotive giant Daimler invests in Soul Machines

Daimler Financial Services, a subsidiary of vehicle company Daimler AG, is investing in Auckland-based intelligent and emotional avatar developer Soul Machines™.

Customers could someday work with avatars to finance with Daimler

Through Daimler Financial Services’ investment in Soul Machines™, customers may be able to make their purchase and finance decisions with advice from an avatar.

Daimler investiert in Emotionale Intelligenz

Daimler Financial Services investiert in das neuseeländische Startup Soul Machines™.

Daimler Financial Services trials avatar in customer call centre

Following satisfactory trials, DFS has now invested in the New Zealand-based company Soul Machines™.

Daimler Financial Services invests in New Zealand start-up Soul Machinesfor advanced avatars

Daimler’s financial and mobility services division has made a strategic investment in Soul Machines™

Daimler investe in Soul Machinesper sviluppare l’intelligenza artificiale emotiva

Dopo aver intrapreso con successo la strada dell’intelligenza artificiale, introdotta sui propri veicoli a partire dall’ultima generazione di Classe A, Daimler accelera nello sviluppo della tecnologia investendo in Soul Machines™.

Daimler Finance Services invests in avatar-based customer service

Daimler Financial Services has made a strategic investment in Soul Machines™, the New Zealand start-up that is a world leader in digital avatar-based customer service.

Daimler Financial Services makes strategic investment in Soul Machines; artificial and emotional intelligence

Daimler Financial Services, the financial and mobility services arem of Daimler AG, has made a strategic investment in Soul Machines™ further to develop the combined use of artificial and emotional intelligence.

Daimler Financial Services beteiligt sich an Soul Machines

Die Daimler Financial Services investiert in den Bereich Emotionale Intelligenz und geht eine strategische Beteiligung bei der neuseeländischen Soul Machines™ ein. 

HOT OFF THE PRESS: Daimler Financial Services announces investment in Soul Machines™

 

  • Daimler Financial Services makes strategic investment in New Zealand-based company Soul Machinesto further develop artificial and emotional intelligence for multi-channel, customer-service pilot.

  • Chief Information Officer Udo Neumann: “After successfully testing how artificial intelligence helps our employees better service customers, we are now investing in a disruptive technology to further enhance the customer experience.”

  • “The New Zealand start-up Soul Machinesis a world leader in the field of Emotional Intelligence for use in machines and digital avatars.”

Orlando, Florida – Daimler Financial Services, the financial and mobility services captive of German premium car and commercial vehicle company Daimler AG, announced at the Gartner Symposium in Orlando (FL) a strategic investment in Soul Machines™, a ground-breaking New Zealand company re-imagining how humans connect with machines, to further develop the combined use of artificial and emotional intelligence. Daimler is the first premium brand in the automotive sector to develop emotional intelligence use cases based on Soul Machine’s technology.

“After successfully testing how artificial intelligence helps our employees better service customers, we are now investing in a disruptive technology to further enhance the customer experience” said Udo Neumann, global CIO of Daimler Financial Services, during his keynote presentation at the Gartner Symposium. Terms of the investment were not disclosed.

Customer Experience: Use Case for Call Centers

Daimler and Soul Machines™ already presented digital avatar “Sarah” in February at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Since then, “Sarah” was successful in answering most frequently asked customer questions during an internal pilot at one of the company’s call centers in the USA. Daimler Financial Services plans to use Soul Machines™’ technology to optimize the customer experience through artificial and emotional intelligence. Digital avatar “Sarah” will be able to support customers like a personal concierge. Thanks to Emotional Intelligence, the machine will be able to recognize the most diverse individual customer needs and offer the right information at the right time. For customers, this means communicating with a convenient, voice-controlled and emotionally intelligent touchpoint. This brings Daimler Financial Services at the forefront of a changing environment, as the share of online business is increasing significantly and customers are making their purchasing decisions on digital platforms. Benedikt Schell, Chief Experience Officer at Daimler Financial Services: “Customers expect intuitive, time-saving services that are available 24/7 through the channel that is most convenient for them. With the investment in Soul Machines™ we are laying an important foundation to not just meet, but exceed these customer expectations.”

Digital Avatars: Machines with emotional and cognitive intelligence

Soul Machines™ is a New Zealand company, founded in 2016, specializing in the space of digital avatars, emotional intelligence and cognitive intelligence. The company brings technology to life by creating incredibly life-like, emotionally responsive, artificial humans with personality and character that allows machines to talk to humans face-to-face.

“As we continue to lead the world in advanced AI technology and development of digital humans across a broad spectrum of industries, this strategic investment from Daimler Financial Services puts us in an even better position to quickly develop and test our disruptive technology in the automotive sector together with our great partner,” stated Greg Cross, Chief Business Officer, Soul Machines™.

CIO Udo Neumann adds: “Emotional intelligence will play a crucial role in adapting services, such as car financing, leasing and insurance, car-sharing or ride-hailing to customers. Different from today’s voice-based, assistance technology, “Sarah” will be programmed to recognize non-verbal behavior in real-time using face recognition.”

About Soul Machines

Soul Machines™ is a ground-breaking, high-tech company of AI researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists, artists and innovative thinkers; re-imagining how we connect with machines. The company brings technology to life by creating incredibly life-like, emotionally responsive, artificial humans with personality and character that allow machines to talk to us face-to-face. Their vision is to humanize artificial intelligence to better humanity. Soul Machines™ is now deploying the world’s first digital avatars with some of the biggest corporate brands in the world in Banking and Finance, Software and Technology, Automotive, Healthcare, Energy and Education industries.

Further information from Daimler is available at: www.media.daimler.com and www.daimler.com

HOT OFF THE PRESS: emotional intelligence daimler financial services invests in soul machines

“It will be a game changer,’ says CIO Udo Neumann

By Sara Castellanos and Kim S. Nash | The Wall Street Journal | Mar 1, 2018

 Udo Neumann, global chief information officer for Daimler Financial Services, standing next to Sarah, the 'digital human,' at 2018's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Photo: Daimler AG Udo Neumann, global chief information officer for Daimler Financial Services, standing next to Sarah, the ‘digital human,’ at 2018’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Photo: Daimler AG

Digital assistants on the market now can help customers with tasks like finding the right pair of jeans and making payments to credit cards, all while being polite, helpful and sometimes witty.

Udo Neumann, global chief information officer for Daimler Financial Services, is exploring how digital assistance could go even further.

An assistant with a human-like “face,” with instant access to helpful data and programmed to detect how people are feeling and respond accordingly, could help gain customer and employee trust, Mr. Neumann said. “It’s clearly the next step in the development of an evolving technology, (where) emotions come into play.”

 Daimler Financial's Sarah can react to spoken and typed words as well as non-verbal queues. Photo: Daimler AG Daimler Financial’s Sarah can react to spoken and typed words as well as non-verbal queues. Photo: Daimler AG

Daimler Financial Services, a division of Daimler AG, announced this week it’s partnering with New Zealand startup Soul Machines on a proof-of-concept project to see how a digital assistant with a face and a name could give personalized help to employees and customers.

The companies, which have worked together for several months, are developing a “digital human” built with AI software from IBM Watson that can be programmed to answer questions related to car financing, leasing and insurance, and capabilities to recognize non-verbal cues using face recognition technology.

“It will be a game changer. I think we humans love to have interactions on an emotional basis,” Mr. Neumann said.

Neural networking and machine learning tools lets an early version, named Sarah, react to spoken and typed words as well as non-verbal queues such as a loud noise or a nodding head in agreement.

Sarah can be programmed with highly specialized knowledge about, for example, the latest Mercedes models and information about leasing options, said Greg Cross, chief business officer at Soul Machines.

“They learn to recognize you, learn about your personality type and respond and create conversational content that matches you,” Mr. Cross said.

The project is in the early stages of development, with no date set for when Sarah could be deployed to employees or customers, Mr. Neumann said. “We want to combine artificial intelligence and emotional intelligence and see how these capabilities come together,” he said.

The digital human could eventually act as a “companion” for employees at a call center or training center, he said. For customers, talking to such an avatar might increase purchases among those who feel intimidated by high-pressure sales staff, said Mr. Cross.

“Some people don’t feel comfortable in a sales room. They will have a conversation in their living room,” he said.

Then, when a customer visits a dealership for a test drive, the customer and the salesperson could converse with the avatar at a kiosk, sharing information, Mr. Cross said.

Unlike humans, Soul Machines’ digital assistant can be programmed only with traits that help it perform a job, he said. Anger and frustration, for example, will not exist. “The digital sales person simply will not have these traits,” he said.

The goal isn’t to replace a human salesperson, though. “It becomes another way a customer can interact with the company,” he said.

PRESS: The insider’s guide to the making of a digital assistant

Liz Maguire, head of digital and transformation at ANZ bank, says Jamie, the avatar, provides vital lessons on digital inclusion and innovation.

Article by Divina Paredes (CIO New Zealand) | 09 October, 2018

 

 Image by CIO Image by CIO

 

The digital assistant is not going to be for everyone, but this is entirely about customer choice.

Liz Maguire, ANZ

Since Jamie started to work over two months ago, she has had more than 10,000 conversations with customers, and 60 per cent of customers say she was able to answer their queries.

Jamie is a trainee at ANZ Bank and works 24×7. But if you ask her to go out for coffee, she will politely turn you down. “I don’t need coffee to stay awake, but thanks for asking,” she replies. After all, Jamie can not just step out of her workplace. Jamie is an avatar, created to answer frequent customer queries.

“Jamie is a work in progress,” explains Liz Maguire, head of digital and transformation at ANZ Bank.

“As human beings, we have been talking for a lot lot longer than we have been using small screens,” says Maguire, on how the project came about.

“We worked from the hypothesis that talking to a digital assistant was better than pressing a button on a screen.”

Maguire talked about creating Jamie as part of her presentation on the ‘secrets of effective change leaders: inclusion and innovation’ at the recent CIO and Computerworld forum ‘Digital Now and Digital Savvy’ held in conjunction with Zoho.

Maguire explains that at the moment, Jamie can answer answer the top 30 frequently asked questions or most frequently searched-for topics on the help section of anz.co.nz. She shares that they are receiving demands to include more topics that Jamie can answer.

Jamie was made in partnership with Soul Machines™, whose CEO and co-founder Mark Sagar, has won awards for his groundbreaking facial technology in King Kong and Avatar.

“If you are happy, she looks happy; if you are sad, she looks genuinely concerned,” says Maguire.

Maguire explains Jamie sits on a “big AI stack” and is on what she calls “moderated learning mode.”

We are looking at all of the conversations she is having with the customers, says Maguire. “She gets a lot of abuse, which is kind of disturbing, and which is one of the reasons why we did not turn on the learning mode.”  

 Image by CIO Image by CIO

 

 

Maguire did not elaborate on the nature of the abuse, other than saying they were “clearly inappropriate things.” She discloses that the team spent a lot of time working on privacy issues that go with the deployment of a digital human.

She says a customer accepts a disclosure agreement that they will get written extracts of the conversation and the emotional tags. Jamie can only answer generation questions and does not need personal customer data.

“We don’t want people talking about specific information with her,” explains Maguire.

Digital inclusion, digital options

She adds that Jamie compliments the digital options and channels of the bank. She says two-thirds of their customers use digital channels regularly. The digital assistant is not going to be for everyone, “but this is entirely about customer choice.”

The ages of those who use the digital assistant are fairly evenly split between those in the early 20s and mid-60s, says Maguire. There is slightly less use of the technology by those over 65 and those under 21. “That is a reflection that those under 21 have less complex banking needs,” she states.

“Jamie is smart, capable, and intelligent, so why could she not be female?” Liz Maguire, ANZ

According to Maguire, she is often asked, “Why is Jamie female?” Her answer: “Jamie is smart, capable, and intelligent, so why could she not be female?”

The truth, she explains, is that Jamie is a stock avatar from Soul Machines™. Jamie is also the same model used by Air New Zealand’s avatar Sophie.

“We are the first bank in the world to have a publicly available digital human on the system,” declares Maguire. So what can other organisations learn from their pioneer work on creating a digital assistant? Maguire ‘crowdsourced’ the answers from her team and distils their responses into four areas:

First is, the importance of conversations.

Maguire says first, they had to develop a personality for Jamie, who she describes as “quite geeky.” “The team spent a lot of time saying, what would Jamie say in this particular situation?”

ANZ brought in a former movie director to the team. “She has a whole bunch of skills in making characters believable,” says Maguire. She adds that, “The conversation, without question, is absolutely the biggest piece of work in creating Jamie.”

She reveals the team worked on the digital human for about a year before they were confident for it to go live.

When Jamie went live in July, they learned their second biggest lesson: that people are willing to give time to try new ideas.

“We [were] gobsmacked about how willing our customers and staff have been to try new things,” she relates. Maguire shares that the staff approached customers queuing at the ANZ flagship branch on Queen Street in Auckland. “People were receptive [to the invite], and they were way more receptive to Jamie once “they had a go” in asking her questions. There were also unexpected benefits.

“We did not think that potentially Jamie might be a tool to help migrants,” says Maguire. “We had customers with English as a second language and they said to us, ‘actually, I feel at ease. Sometimes I am worried with my English when I am speaking to someone in your branch. I don’t have that problem when I am dealing with Jamie’.”

She says the bank also tested Jamie with more than 150 customers and staff, to “give us reassurance we aren’t going to bungle up our brand.” This, she says, is a lesson for heritage companies working on innovation projects. “If you are doing something that is quite different from what you do, [consider] what is that going to have an impact on your brand.”

She then shares the third lesson: how Jamie has highlighted to them that customers have surprisingly high expectations of innovation.

Since the launch, customers have felt that Jamie can answer anything. So much so that when the bank had an outage a few weeks ago, everybody who went to Jamie thought she would know what was going on. “Once you start down the path, you have to move pretty darn quickly to be able to keep up with customer expectations and hopefully get ahead as well,” she says.

Jamie is responding, talking to the customer in real-time, and we are building a bunch of functionalities to make use of that real-time capability, Maguire further expounds.

She then segues to the fourth lesson shared by her team: There’s never enough time.

“When you are working on new innovation, you are always pressed for time,” states Maguire. She says when they were working on Jamie, the year felt like an “excruciatingly long time”.

Since Jamie was a pilot project, they had to work on a lot of sign offs, and spent a lot of time testing “to get the project right”. “What we have found is the time is super slow when you are bringing it to market. The second you bring it to market time, time is up really really quickly,” she says. Thus, she advises the audience at the CIO and Computerworld forum, “Give yourself a lot more time upfront and a lot more time you think you need for your pilot. Before you know it, your pilot will be finished.”

“We are pretty excited over Jamie,” says Maguire.  She sees “interesting use cases” for Jamie within and outside the bank.

In the future, Jamie may be able to tell a customer interest rates in real-time.

“I would like to see her at GoMoney,” says Maguire.

The latter, developed by her team, is the most popular mobile banking app in New Zealand, having been downloaded by more than half a million Kiwis.

“We expect over time we’ll have our own branch avatars, as well.”

PRESS: Greg Cross wants your next employee to be an AI-powered digital human

Article by Jordan Teicher for INDUSTRIOUS issue 3 – IBM’s Quarterly magazine about the latest trends in the industry

“Humans can communicate in lots of ways,” said Greg Cross. “But when we actually want to have important conversations we always do those face to face.”

Cross, the CBO of Soul Machines™, practices what he preaches. Though he lives in New Zealand, he took time out of a brief business trip in New York to meet me in person at IBM’s office near Union Square. We gathered to talk about his company, whose mission is to make face- to-face conversations like ours part of the most common interactions we have today—namely, the interactions we have with intelligent machines.

“We’re heading into a world where we’re going to spend a lot more of our time interacting with machines. We have a fundamental belief that these machines can be more helpful to us if they’re more like us,” he said.

To do that, Soul Machines™’ team of AI researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists and artists are creating “digital humans”—fully autonomous, animated individuals that look and sound like real people. The key to their intelligence is a cloud-based virtual central nervous system called the Human Computing Engine, which sits atop IBM Watson and uses Watson Assistant.

When connected to that system, Soul Machines™’ digital humans are amazingly lifelike. They hear and see the people with whom they interact, and their conversations with those people are made emotive through nuanced facial expressions. For businesses, Cross said, digital humans can revolutionize the economics of customer service, giving them the ability to provide personalized and consistent care at scale.

A face, Cross said, is a “reflection of the heart and mind
of an individual,” and it can be key to successful digital interactions with customers. In the years to come, he bets, businesses across industries will agree and make digital humans an integral part of their workforce.

“The question we wanted to explore was: What happens when you create a digital face? Will people engage with
it? Will they find that digital face more engaging than
a chatbot or a voice assistant? Our view is that, yes, of course they will. That’s ultimately the market and business development we’ve been going on,” Cross said.

“It completely captured my imagination”

Cross has been a technology entrepreneur nearly his entire career. At 18, he dropped out of business school at the University of Waikato, and began an internship at the high-tech manufacturer Trigon Packaging. Since then, he’s worked at technology startups in different industries all over the world. In 2007, he co-founded PowerbyProxi, a spin-out of the University of Auckland’s wireless power department, which developed high efficiency and high density wireless power products. The company sold to Apple last year.

“For me, there’s nothing more fun than taking on some sort of core technology or core idea, wrapping a team of people behind it, and exploring how you build a company around it. That’s still what gets me out of bed with a smile on my face,” he said.

Two years ago, Cross found his most recent opportunity
to do just that when he met Dr. Mark Sagar, an Academy Award-winning animator who was then the director of the Laboratory for Animate Technologies at The University of Auckland. Cross had, in the past, seen Sagar present his work— a virtual animated baby called BabyX that learns and reacts like a real human infant. But when Sagar sat down with him one-on-one to show him the technology underlying his creation, Cross knew he had to get involved.

“It completely captured my imagination,” Cross said.

First steps

When Cross and Sagar first started thinking about how
to turn the technology into a business, they drew up a list of half a dozen industries they knew were facing “quite significant disruption,” and began imagining how digital humans could help. They then started talking about digital humans at technology and industry conferences. Soon, business leaders eager to drive change in their industries wanted to talk with them.

“It’s like any new technology; it’s well understood that there’s an adoption curve. There are the early adopters and then there are those who never want to be first. We’re always very careful about making sure we’re speaking to the right people,” he said.

So far, it seems, Cross has found those people. This year, Soul Machines debuted its first crop of digital employees at Autodesk, Daimler Financial Services and NatWest. It’s still early days, Cross said, but the employees—Cora, Sarah, and Ava—are paving the way for a future in which digital humans will be an integral part of the way people interact with businesses.

“I like to think in five years we’ll create a very large population of digital humans who will be interacting with people and having hundreds of millions of conversations every day.”

Imagining the future

Where might digital humans pop up next? Cross couldn’t talk about some of Soul Machines™’ upcoming projects. But the appetite for next-generation customer service solutions, he said, is strong across a number of industries, including retail and telecommunications. Digital humans could find a productive place in all of them.

In a fast-paced, digitally-driven landscape, customers have little patience for endless call center queues
and customer service departments with limited hours. Increasingly, they expect quick, seamless interactions
at any time of the day or night with representatives that understand and remember their preferences and history.

At the moment, Soul Machines™’ digital humans are
making their mark in customer service. But Cross is already investigating a wide range of future applications for his company’s technology. He imagines digital humans one day teaching classes or providing medical care. Celebrities, he said, could enlist their own digital twin to perform tasks they can’t fit into their schedule. The possibilities, Cross said, are endless—and he’s exploring as many of them as possible.

“One day I can be sitting in a board room doing a presentation for a CEO of one of the largest banks or the largest tech companies in the world. Another day I can be sitting down with the biggest celebrities in the world,” he said. “It’s a huge amount of fun.”

 

HOT OFF THE PRESS: New Zealand startup Soul Machines™ puts human face on AI

Company founded by ‘Avatar’ animator will bring its digital humans to Asia next year

Article by Akane Okutsu | Nikkei Asian Review | October 02, 2018

 

 Soul Machines’ digital humanoid Lia shows lifelike expressions that would be hard for a physical robot to match Soul Machines™’ digital humanoid Lia shows lifelike expressions that would be hard for a physical robot to match

 

TOKYO — “Do you need me to tell everyone your life story?” asks Lia as she appears on a screen, offering to introduce the speaker. Her wrinkles and moving eyes make her look like a real person, but she is a digital humanoid.

New Zealand-based startup Soul Machines™ has so far created 15 such humanoids — disembodied screen presences — employed mainly as customer service assistants. They work in seven countries for companies including Royal Bank of Scotland and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group.

The company looks to produce thousands of digital humanoids in the next three years, with plans to expand into Asia for the first time in the next 12 months.

In Asia, Soul Machines™ will launch projects with companies in Japan and China in the first half of next year. It also wants to expand to Southeast Asian countries like Singapore.

“We tend to look for industries where we know they are going to go through substantial change, such as banking, autos, health care and education,” Chief Business Officer Greg Cross told the Nikkei Asian Review in an interview on the sidelines of FIN/SUM 2018, an annual financial technology summit in Tokyo sponsored by Nikkei. Cross declined to disclose the partners’ names or their industries.

 

 

“The Chinese market is hugely exciting,” Cross said, as “there are opportunities to leapfrog industry infrastructure” that is relatively underdeveloped, lacking sufficient access to health or financial services.

“Over the next few years we would expect our team to grow to as many as 200 to 300 people to support the business,” Cross said.

Entry into Asia means making humanoids that look Asian, and adjusting their social behaviors to fit the host cultures, Cross said.

One of these humanoids can be created and implemented for “less than half a million dollars,” according to Cross. The company charges annual subscription fees based on factors such as the number of personalities and languages, as well transaction fees that vary with the number of conversations.

The startup was co-founded two years ago by Mark Sagar, who won sci-tech Academy Awards for the films “King Kong” and “Avatar.” It has attracted investors including Hong Kong-based Horizon Ventures, as well as founders of Facebook and Google-owned AI company DeepMind, the developer of the AlphaGo program.

Unlike competitors that feed prerecorded content into a chat box, “we are actually autonomously animating these digital characters using brain models to synthesize human behavior in real time,” Cross said in his speech at FIN/SUM.

Soul Machines™’ digital assistants use existing artificial intelligence engines such as IBM’s Watson, which supports several languages. The company also trains its AIs to understand different English accents.

Going beyond software, the Soul Machines™ team includes neuroscientists to build artificial brains and nervous systems. Artificial digital versions of hormones like adrenaline and oxytocin run through these systems, making the humanoids act human.

“There are some jobs that digital humans and AI can do better than real humans,” Cross told Nikkei in an interview, mentioning customer support. Humanoids become practical for providing personalized services to a large number of users, collecting information and learning in the process. They are better than humans at providing specialized information and analysis based on vast quantities of data, he added.

 

 Greg Cross, Soul Machines’ chief business officer, says humanoids beat humans at some tasks (Photo by Takuya Fujisawa) Greg Cross, Soul Machines™’ chief business officer, says humanoids beat humans at some tasks (Photo by Takuya Fujisawa)

 

Soul Machines™ continues research and development on humanoids that are even more lifelike. Cross said the company is “making our virtual nervous system smarter, teaching it how to learn, teaching it how to cooperate, teaching it things like social learning patterns.”

The idea is that the more humanoids resemble humans, the better they can interact with and be trusted by them. “If you are on a self-driving car, how do you trust that machine?” asked Cross, suggesting that an artificial chauffeur may help.

Humanoids would also benefit from technological developments by other companies, such as improvements in the accuracy of natural-language processing. Even physical humanoid robots are possible if other companies develop technology that imitates the movements of human facial muscles, Cross said.

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