Why are AI assistants all young females?
Soul Machines chief business officer Greg Cross has responded to criticism from broadcaster Mike Hosking, who pointed out that all the AI avatars launched recently - ANZ's Jamie, Air NZ's Sophie, Mercedes-Benz's Sarah and Vodafone's Kiri (made by Soul Machines rival FaceMe) have something in common.
"Do you spot the problem? They're all women," said Hosking.
"We have created male digital assistants," Cross said, pointing out "Will," an AI commissioned by Vector.
The age, sex and other facets of an avatar are ultimately a decision for clients, Cross said.
But he added, "As time goes by I think it will evolve and customers will get to choose if they talk to a male or female or someone of the same ethnicity."
Cross's comments came as Soul Machines updated on a multi-million funding effort.
The original backers of Siri and Auckland University's commercialisation arm are among the backers of Soul Machines' US$20 million ($30.6m) Series B funding round.
Soul Machines makes artificially intelligent avatars, including ANZ's "Jamie," Air New Zealand's "Sophie" and Mercedes Benz's "Sarah" who can read emotions and answer customer queries.
Cross said the Series B round won't close until the new year. It could end up raising more than $US20m, Cross says. He won't talk about a post-money valuation at this point.
Auckland University's Uniservices is chipping $2m into the round.
Uniservices already holds a 17 per cent stake in Soul Machines via the shares it received for transferring its intellectual property to the startup when it was originally spun out of intelligent avatar research conducted at Auckland University by "Baby X" creator Dr Mark Sagar.
Cross says Uniservices' latest support, via its Auckland Investors Fund, is purely financial. Soul Machines retails full rights to Sagar's research.
But today he also have a note to Uniservices wider contribution, saying "New Zealand needs more technology companies based on deep research and Intellectual Property. The University of Auckland and UniServices are making a massive contribution to developing the ecosystem required to create more companies like us."
Soul Machines earlier announced that Mercedes Benz maker Daimler AG is backing its Series B round to the tune of US$7m.
Daimler has also emerged as a major earlier customer for Soul Machines.
Horizon Ventures has also supported the Series B round. The venture capital firm also participated in Soul Machines' Series A round in mid-2016.
Cross won't put a dollar value on Horizon's backing but says it's a huge endorsement given Horizon's track record in artificial intelligence investments - it put money into Siri before it was bought by Apple and DeepMind before it was purchased by Google.
The chief business officer said Soul Machines now has 82 staff.
He would not comment on revenue. Soul Machines was still very much in an investment and growth phase he said (startup-speak for losing money).
Asked what set Soul Machines apart from the small army of digital assistant startups, Cross said his company differs from other AI research companies in that it has developed cognitive models to simulate human thought processes exemplified by its emotionally responsive digital avatars. That differs from deep learning AI, where a network of processes are built to replicate a brain in the way it analyses data.
Cross said he believes cognitive models are going to be a central element of the wider AI standard. Because the technology gets smarter the more it's used, Soul Machines expects its value will track that trend, with Cross pointing to DeepMind and Siri as examples.
"We have no question in our minds that we have that potential to be valued as some of those $1 billion-plus companies," he said.
Cross described himself and Sagar as partners in Soul Machines.
He handled the business side while the Auckland University alumnus took care of the technology.
Cross was also chairman of another Auckland University spin-out, wireless charging company Power-by-Proxi - bought by Apple last year in a $100m+ deal.