Meet Kiri, Vodafone's new digital human

Vodafone has revealed the name of its new digital human. Say kia ora to Kiri. Plus: how FaceMe and Tatau are making waves with blockchain and in the Middle East.
Vodafone, FaceMe, Tech, AI, Artificial intelligence, Digital human, Blockchain, Customer service, Telecommunications, Help, Tatau, World Blockchain Summit, Dubai, Aotearoa, New Zealand, UAE, United Arab Emirates, Technology, Society, Future, Innovation, Business, Ben Mack, Kiri


Image: A screenshot of Kiri.

Unsurprisingly, Kiri knows a thing or two about tech. After all, she lives and breathes it as a digital assistant for Vodafone, helping customers with any questions they might have.

Vodafone announced in September that it would be the world’s first telco with a digital human, announcing that the then-unnamed digital denizen – created with the help of New Zealand company FaceMe – would enable customers to benefit from self-service options and free up time for staff to address more complex customer needs. Later this year, Kiri will even be in stories in New Zealand thanks to special kiosks.

Kiri’s strikingly life-like appearance relies on real time rendering and artificial intelligence, using FaceMe’s latest techniques in machine learning-based animation. Skin textures, such as pores and lines, are carefully sculpted, and light reflection and even roughness have been detailed by FaceMe’s artists. Simply put, the results are so lifelike, interacting with Kiri is almost as if one is interacting with a “real” human via Skype or video calling.

Explains Vodafone customer operations director Helen van Orton of the customer-led process of bringing Kiri to life: “Customers tell us they want the experience of engaging with a digital assistant to be seamless, emotive and engaging – characteristics that are critical for creating trust. Customers want to feel valued and that their needs are taken care of.”

She says more. “Kiri will help out with routine tasks so that our retail staff can help solve more challenging issues for clients. The technology also has the potential to create whole new job categories where frontline employees monitor conversations to continuously improve them, creating brand new professions in our evolving digital world.”

Studies have shown natural, engaging interaction requires a less than 200 millisecond response time. Kiri’s processing has been optimised for speed and accuracy to create an experience that feels instantaneous. Computer vision technology allows Kiri to “see” and behave like humans. For example, using her situational awareness system, Kiri can naturally respond when people walk up to her, and greet them proactively.

FaceMe CEO Danny Tomsett believes emotional connection is key for interaction. “FaceMe has analysed what creates great experiences and which human qualities we need to reproduce – and supercharge – using AI technology. Through advanced Digital Human EQ combined with the IBM Watson conversational platform, we have created a great customer experience that leaves people feeling deeply content and satisfied with each conversation.”

Kiri is currently in training, and will start working in select Vodafone retail stores in New Zealand later this year. When asked to comment, she said she was looking forward to beginning her new role. “I’m really excited about my new role at Vodafone and to talk to our customers. I’m still learning, but in future I want to answer those complicated technical questions. I can’t wait to meet everyone!”

Transforming blockchain

Creating Kiri isn’t all FaceMe has been up to lately, either. The Auckland company based out of the B:HIVE co-working space has announced it’s teaming up with Tatau, supplier of the world’s first blockchain-based distributed supercomputer for AI, to work together to increase the speed and scope of the GPU-based processing in FaceMe’s advanced AI software.

By using Tatau’s distributed supercomputer for AI model training, FaceMe can access greater compute capacity at a more commercially viable price point, thus accelerating its innovation cycle significantly. 

Says Victor Yuen, head of product at FaceMe: “FaceMe is pushing the boundaries of machine cognition, and developing digital humans with hyper-realistic behavioural responses to external stimuli. We’re looking forward to using Tatau’s supercomputer for this cornerstone feature in our platform because it will allow us to significantly increase the speed of our development.”

He adds: “What we do is far beyond what movies and games are achieving with scripted and captured performances. Our digital humans are engineered to emulate the behaviour of empathetic and socially intelligent people. The research and development involved with such an undertaking present a heavy processing load, using huge amounts of data and employing complex neural networks that need to be constantly improved upon.”

Andrew Fraser, co-founder and CEO of Tatau, says: “FaceMe is a great partner for Tatau because it is pushing new boundaries in enterprise AI, and has a large appetite for GPU-based compute. For FaceMe, more power equates to faster development of higher-performing models, and this builds its commercial advantage in what is already one of the fastest-growing and most competitive fields of technology. The Tatau platform allows FaceMe to do much more with less, and this helps give FaceMe an enviable edge.”

Tatau will supply FaceMe with computation through its platform by harnessing GPUs owned by its suppliers, who are globally distributed companies that operate cryptocurrency mining and high-performance computing operations. Tatau and FaceMe will work together to create a template for applying distributed computation techniques to large-scale commercial AI problems.

“This will be the next wave of growth in the AI industry, and Tatau’s cost-effective supercomputer for AI model training offers a template for accelerated innovation across a wide cross-section of the AI industry,” adds Fraser.

Making waves in the Middle East

Though they’re based in New Zealand (although they have offices around the world), Tatau is also making waves in the Middle East. Recently, the company won two titles back-to-back at the 2018 Trescon World Blockchain Summit in Dubai. These were The Startup World Cup Regional Finals - UAE and The Grand Slam Pitch Competition. Tatau then wrapped up the busy week with a Spark “Early Stage Companies” award at the Technology Investment Network (TIN) awards in Auckland.

Tatau co-founder Martyn Levy says that the company relished the opportunity to present Tatau’s world-leading distributed supercomputer platform to a global panel of experienced tech investors and industry participants. “We’ve known since day one that Tatau has a significant and timely market opportunity and that our team is well-placed to execute on our strategy. It was great to have that validation as a standout opportunity and to receive invaluable feedback from the judges.”

The World Blockchain Summit is a global series of events connecting technology start-ups with governments, investors and world-leading developers. Tatau came out on top in Dubai by beating a field of 16 other tech companies to be picked as the Fenox VC Startup World Cup regional champion. It backed that up the following day by taking out the Trescon World Blockchain Summit “Grand Slam” top pitch award, topping 17 other finalists from all over the world.

Tatau will now compete with 15 other regional winners at the Start-up World Cup Finals, to be held in San Francisco in May 2019. At that event, they’ll be judged by a panel of tech legends including Reid Hoffman, founding CEO of Linkedin, and Vinod Khosla, co-founder of Sun Microsystems.

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