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A computer character that cares

Health

YOU pull out your smartphone or tablet and a virtual assistant with a name, face and personality asks "Hey, how are you doing?"

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“Not so well,” you reply, and this virtual assistant plugs itself into a vast library of support knowledge bases, gives an appropriate response to help you and alerts an expert or carer if needed.

That's the vision of Clevertar, a South Australian company that specialises in 'relational agents' for assistive care.

Dr Martin Luerssen, the co-founder of Clevertar and its flagship ‘Anna Cares’ software, explains that an agent is just a program that can operate in an independent way but a relational agent builds a relationship with you.

“When we think about relationships we don't really think about a relationship to a computer. We think about relationships with people,” Dr Luerssen says. “Why is that? What is it that makes humans so special?

“Love, friendship, things like that – those are the stronger relationships. You could say 'I love my car, I love my computer', but usually that doesn't mean the same thing. It's obvious that humans have something unique about them. Trying to reproduce that on a computer is what we're all about.”

Dr Luerssen specialises in applying biological processes to machine learning. He was a key part of ‘The Thinking Head’ research program at Flinders University in South Australia, which aimed to streamline computer and human communication. Clevertar is a spin off from that research, an evidence-based solution for care providers.

Anna Cares is a smart virtual assistant that resides in a mobile device that keeps track of appointments, reminders and a person’s wellbeing. She can hook in to the Cloud and report that information to carers or family members.

In an aged care setting, Anna’s responsibilities might include providing medication reminders, notifications for appointments and conveying messages to and from carers, family members or friends.

“The problem for carers is that they can’t be everywhere at all times. With this particular app, you have more of an insight into your population of patients. This virtual ‘person’ will now be present at all times,” Dr Luerssen explains.

“If a patient has a problem, some real person can be alerted to that. Support teams can just attend to people who have problems, rather than having to tend to everyone to find out they didn’t really have to be there,” he says.

Staff use a web-based client that tracks information for everyone under their care. They can remotely add appointments or send messages, keep track of eating habits and more.

In an aged care setting, Anna’s responsibilities might include providing medication reminders, notifications for appointments and conveying messages to and from carers, family members or friends.

“The problem for carers is that they can’t be everywhere at all times. With this particular app, you have more of an insight into your population of patients. This virtual ‘person’ will now be present at all times,” Dr Luerssen explains.

“If a patient has a problem, some real person can be alerted to that. Support teams can just attend to people who have problems, rather than having to tend to everyone to find out they didn’t really have to be there,” he says.

Staff use a web-based client that tracks information for everyone under their care. They can remotely add appointments or send messages, keep track of eating habits and more.

Anna Cares’ also has applications in disability care, independent living or any space where someone requires care and supervision.

Research has shown that this type of ‘relational agent’ has potential to help with any sort of health condition that can improve with a change in behaviour.

“If you need someone to stop smoking, or to do more exercise outdoors, a relational agent can help with that,” Dr Luerssen says. “One study showed that interacting with a virtual character which encouraged you to do more exercise was more effective than an ordinary computer program.

“Part of the reason is that a character would be really disappointed when you didn’t do your exercise. People see it’s disappointed. It’s obvious the program isn’t a real person, but it’s this social feeling of ‘Oh my god, I disappointed someone!’”

It is also harder to lie to a virtual character that looks and reacts like a human – if you’re supposed to be eating healthy and had a hamburger for lunch, it will be harder to get that past Anna.

“Our brains are superficial,” says Dr Luerssen. “When we see somebody and they look like a human, you will instinctively treat them differently than a little square box with text on it.”

Anna Cares’ isn’t an artificial intelligence – it doesn’t learn as such, but it does improve with use. It is essentially a well-scripted program that knows how to deal with a wide variety of situations. Her reactions change based on past interactions, how long it took people to respond and a swathe of other variables.

For example, if someone had an appointment to go to a funeral. The software could try and detect the nature of what a ‘funeral’ is and adapt its tone and demeanour, but it’s risky. Better to hardcode that kind of response into the app. Over time, the team are extending the situations Anna can respond to based on feedback and testing in care facilities.

“There’s a lot of ‘if this, then do that’, it’s a very complex piece. We are looking towards making it more intelligent in the future. We want to create a framework that can adapt to different needs,” Dr Luerssen says.

The other aspects of Anna are improving all the time as well. Her design is purposely meant to come across as non-threatening and approachable. They began the app with a photo-realistic assistant, but getting too close to the uncanny valley is an unnerving experience for most people. Her personality is designed to gently remind people of responsibilities without being annoying.

There’s intention to allow users to customise Anna’s appearance in the future, and Clevertar is also developing a new animation engine to make the app look better and run on more platforms.

Anna Cares is only available on a service-provider level at the moment but there’s a soon-to-be-released family version as well.

“We have a virtual character here. Not just a voice or some text,” Dr Luerssen says. “We’re creating a person that you can turn to when you need some help.”

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story.

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