Leading New Zealand digital business avatar creator Soul Machines has a "significant" new shareholder, the financial services arm of German premium carmaker Daimler AG.
The high-tech Auckland-based company won't reveal the size of Daimler Financial Services investment, but co-founder and director Greg Cross said it was significant and would put Soul Machines in an even stronger position to quickly develop and test its disruptive technology in the automotive sector.
The two companies earlier this year presented digital avatar "Sarah" to a global sector conference in Spain. Daimler said since then Sarah had been successful in answering most frequently asked customer questions during a pilot at one of its call centres in the US.
Daimler said it planned to use Soul Machines' technology to optimise customer experience through artificial and emotional intelligence.
Soul Machines was spun out of Auckland university and since it was founded in 2016 has grown from 12 to 80 AI researchers, neuroscientists, psychologists and artists.
Cross said its aim is to make human interaction with machines and AI personalised and friendly with life-like, emotionally responsive, artificial humans with personality and character that talk face-to-face with people.
Soul Machines' digital avatars were now used by some of the biggest corporate brands in the world in the banking and finance, software and technology, automotive, healthcare, energy and education industries.
Closer to home, the ANZ Bank is deploying Soul Machines' digital avatar "Jamie".
Soul Machines' major shareholder according to Companies Office records is co-founder Dr Mark Sagar, director of the Laboratory for Animate Technology at the Auckland Bioengineering Institute and a two-time Academy Award winner for his pioneering work in computer facial animation in the entertainment industry. His movie credits include King Kong and Avatar.
Soul Machines' backers and clients include Hong Kong-based global heavyweight investor Horizons Ventures, IBM and the Royal Bank of Scotland.
Daimler said it was the first premium brand in the automotive sector to develop emotional intelligence use cases based on Soul Machines' technology.
Cross said Sarah answered Daimler customers' questions on a range of matters from what vehicle colours were available, whether their interest was in buying or leasing, to whether they were interested in trading in.
Customers experienced "very personal interaction" with Sarah by smartphone or on a screen in a vehicle showroom. One day they will be able to talk to her on a flat panel screen in their cars.
Cross said "one view and a popular view" was that AI like digital avatars stole jobs.
There were however two important things about AI to remember, he said.
"We are enabling very large organisations to deliver a very personalised service to all customers - you don't often get that personalised service.
"And alot of the work we are doing is actually complementing and filling roles people don't want to do or have chosen not to do."
Cross said Soul Machines was involved in the healthcare sector and was working with Dr Lance O'Sullivan who had raised public awareness about the lack of GPs in rural areas.
Soul Machines had "proof of concept" for a digital doctor, which could provide services to areas in which doctors had chosen not to live.
The principle could also apply to high schools located out of the main centres which could not attract specialist teachers such as science teachers, he said.
In the area of customer service, another benefit of AI and digital avatars was that
they had instant recall to all previous information and data between the customer and the company, Cross said.