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Meet ‘Will’, the digital teacher for renewable energy

Meet ‘Will’, the digital teacher for renewable energy

Chief digital officer Nikhil Ravishankar talks about Vector's latest foray into AI

“We need to find a novel, engaging medium to get the attention of the next generation around energy. So, we thought of applying cutting edge technology to try to have that conversation,” says Nikhil Ravishankar, chief digital officer at Vector.

“Using a digital human is a very compelling method to deliver new information to people, and I have a lot of hope in this technology as a means to deliver cost-effective, rich, educational experiences into the future,” says Ravishankar.

 Ravishankar talks about how his team worked with Soul Machines to create Will, the digital teacher.

Will is now being trialled at Vector’s ‘Be Sustainable with Energy’ schools programme.

The programme, launched in 2005, is offered free to schools within Vector’s Auckland electricity network. The programme has since educated more than 125,000 children about energy, says Vector.

Nikhil Ravishankar at the AWS Transformation Day in Auckland
Nikhil Ravishankar at the AWS Transformation Day in Auckland

Who would have thought I would have a writer for sitcoms and movies helping us with this project?

Will uses Soul Machines’ artificial nervous system - an autonomous animation platform that is modelled on the way the human brain and nervous system work – to bring his digital human face and persona to life in a very human-like way.

The digital teacher can interact with children from a desktop, tablet, or mobile, and helps them to learn about renewable energy such as geothermal, solar, and wind.

Will challenges children on their renewable energy knowledge by asking questions such as, “How tall is a wind turbine?”; “How long does sunlight take to reach the earth?”; and “When we burn biomass, what do you think is let off as the main by-product?”

Watch: Will meets with children for the first time

 “Our work with Soul Machines is a very effective use case as an education tool for kids around renewable energy and creating a new energy future,” says Ravishankar.

 Ravishankar says he was fascinated by the reaction of the children to Will.

 “They were comparing it to bots. There were lots of comments that in a way, Will is better than Siri because they can have a chat.

“Will really captured their attention.”

 Read next: Vector CDO Nikhil Ravishankar sees Auckland as ‘the petri dish for energy innovation’

'AI is not black magic'

He says the team worked on the project for about six months.

“The whole point of this thing is to fail fast,” Ravishankar tells CIO New Zealand.

“We have got to apply completely new ways of working, to be able to trial and put stuff like this out.”

“It is not black magic,” he says. “Don’t expect [to get] this silver bullet technology.”

These things do not just work by themselves, he explains. “There is a lot of very specific approaches you need to take in terms of developing the scripts, in training the underlying AI.”

“It has got to be worked through in an experimental mode,” says Ravishankar.

“But by bringing your core teams into the project, everyone gets a taste for what it would look like when you deploy it into the mainstream.”

We learned early on you have got to be very clear about the script for the digital human, he says.

“We decided it is no different to writing a movie. We got a scriptwriter to help us write the scripts,” he adds.

“We talk about this new way of working, new skill sets, who would have thought I would have a writer for sitcoms and movies helping us with this project?”

The human model for Will, the digital teacher
The human model for Will, the digital teacher

Ravishankar says the digital human has potential use in other parts of the business.

“We are are really interested in seeing how we can use some of the technology to drive better health and safety training outcomes.”

Greg Cross, chief business officer at Soul Machines, says education is going to be one of the breakthrough applications for their technology as digital teachers have the potential to democratise the delivery of education to students everywhere.

Greg Cross
Greg Cross

 “Creating one of the world’s first digital teachers has been one of the company’s most exciting assignments,” says Cross.

 “The opportunity to see digital interactions with children in the classroom has been a fantastic part of this project with the next generation of Vector’s user,” he adds.

 “Working with such an innovative company with a vision to create a new energy future, we’ve been able to not only demonstrate the power of digital humans in education, but also show how our technology can play an important role in helping companies reinvent themselves.

Read next: Dr Elinor Swery of Soul Machines, on creating a digital human: ‘It is a complete process, like employing a new person in your company...You need to train them properly’

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Tags AIVectorchief digital officergreg crossdigital assistantSoul MachinesNikhil Ravishankardigital human

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