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Kiwi airport testing avatar service to ease staff workload

Auckland Airport is testing an AI-powered avatar at the arrivals area to answer biosecurity questions from travellers

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New Zealand’s Auckland Airport is testing the use of an onscreen avatar to answer biosecurity questions from travellers in a bid to reduce the workload of airport officials.

Dubbed Virtual Assistant Interface (Vai), the artificial intelligence (AI) powered avatar offers answers to common questions such as what food items need to be declared for inspection, as well as directions around the airport.

Vai, developed by New Zealand-based AI specialist FaceMe and backed by Westpac’s Innovation Fund, is being tested at the airport’s biosecurity arrivals area to see whether it will become a permanent fixture, according to New Zealand’s Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI).

“The idea is for Vai to take some of the load off MPI officers during peak times by assisting staff with answering queries. This is about using technology to allow officers to focus on their important role of keeping pests and diseases out of New Zealand,” said MPI detection technology manager Brett Hickman.

“MPI is always looking for innovative ways, including emerging technologies, to improve the customer experience for arriving passengers and to increase their biosecurity awareness,” he added.

Vai is highly conversational and has been trained on a database of queries and answers that is constantly updated through interactions with travellers, as well as data from the Auckland Airport website. It also uses biometrics to learn human interactions and will respond accordingly to ease the customer’s experience, according to FaceMe.

In a video showcasing Vai’s capabilities, a traveller was able to get answers on whether fruits and cheese had to be declared on arrival, and what a passenger arrival card was. However, Vai was unable to book a taxi for the traveller, who was shown the airport’s map of where he could hop onto a bus or taxi instead.

Besides Auckland Airport, the country’s ASB Bank has also rolled out a similar avatar service from FaceMe to support small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The avatar, called Josie, is now being trained through interactions with business owners, including those who are not ASB customers.

Read more about AI in ANZ

“We’re excited to develop this technology, but more importantly we’re eager to see what Josie will help our customers achieve,” said Russell Jones, ASB executive general manager for retail banking.

“Globally, New Zealanders are known for innovation and entrepreneurship: we have brilliant ideas but sometimes lack the knowledge for profitable execution. This is where Josie will help.”

AI has been gaining traction in New Zealand in recent years, with a growing number of AI companies offering a range of capabilities, from text analytics and conversational AI to robo-advisors and self-driving vehicles.

Later in March, New Zealand’s biggest AI event will be held in Auckland’s Wynyard Quarter waterfront neighbourhood, bringing together AI companies, businesses and researchers.

“The speedy birth of AI in New Zealand is happening right across the country,” said Ben Reid, New Zealand AI Forum executive director, in a blog post. “Activity and capability in New Zealand is really gathering momentum on all fronts as the country begins to apply AI and machine learning to technology exports.”

Read more on Artificial intelligence, automation and robotics

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