A bold Government foray into artificial intelligence to deliver critical services to the public has stalled, amid concern politicians and the bureaucracy have been spooked by the census and ‘robo-debt’ bungles.
- ‘Nadia project’ aimed to create a virtual assistant that could help people navigate the NDIS
- Project spearheaded by Oscar-winning CGI pioneer Dr Mark Sagar, and voiced by Cate Blanchett
- Sources close to the project tell ABC they fear Census and Centrelink’s ‘robo-debt’ debacles have stymied Government’s appetite for risk
The so-called “Nadia project” aims to help people navigate the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) through a virtual assistant.
Oscar winner Cate Blanchett is the voice of Nadia, whose face and personality has been created by New Zealand artificial intelligence whiz Mark Sagar.
Dr Sagar’s pioneering work on computer-generated characters for blockbuster movies including Avatar, King Kong and Spiderman 2 has seen him recognised with two Academy Awards.
The Nadia project has so far cost more than $3.5 million, with the development process involving co-design with people with disabilities, community groups, carers, academics, the National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIA) and the Department of Human Services.
Using the cognitive technology developed by then IBM Watson team, Nadia is able to respond to participants’ questions, matched with an animated mouth and face.
Blanchett recorded more than 20 hours of dialogue to help programmers.
The NDIA board and executive was told earlier this year the second stage of Nadia’s rollout would begin mid-year and involve volunteer participants being part of her training phase.
“The more Nadia interacts with people, the faster she learns, and the more questions she is asked, the better she gets at supporting people with disability,” the NDIA board was told.
But Nadia’s 12-month “traineeship” never started and multiple sources close to the project have told the ABC they fear the census and Centrelink ‘robo-debt’ debacles took their toll on government-wide appetite for risk.
In May, Department of Human Services chief information officer Gary Sterrenberg said Nadia had not been “stalled per se”.
“It’s really early days, and we really think there needs to be a lot more testing with this technology before it can be unleashed on the public,” he told a Senate committee on May 31.
But a fortnight later, the NDIA withdrew Nadia from the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) Awards, causing consternation inside the organisation.
Sean Fitzgerald, chairman of the NDIA’s Digital Innovation Reference Group, which advised in the development of the project, told the ABC he had been told Nadia was ready to enter her traineeship nine to 10 months ago.
Mr Fitzgerald, a quadriplegic from a bike accident 17 years ago, said Nadia was a revolutionary program that would transform the lives of tens of thousands of people.
He said there were many people with a disability keen to see Nadia enter her limited trial, adding there were thousands of would-be volunteer participants.
“The community is going to start asking more and more questions, and it’s time to move on with things,” Mr Fitzgerald said.
He said like any innovative IT program there were risks but said these were manageable.
“In terms of the risk of Nadia going wrong, we’ve been very careful to mitigate all those risks with the NDIA’s technology authority and with some pretty careful scrutiny from the reference group and with the wider disability community.”
Nadia, once active, promises to deliver massive savings.
The NDIS contact centre fields about 6,000 calls a week from a client base of 32,000 clients, costing $25 every call.
Participants in the NDIS will grow to 460,000 over the next three years.
Without Nadia, the agency believes it, “will not be able to meet the demand for information” from NDIS clients.
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