IT company IBM opened its new Wynyard Quarter office yesterday with a demonstration of artificial and emotional intelligence technology with the potential to reboot business.

Auckland-based development firm Soul Machines has been working with IBM on a human-like avatar named Rachel using emotional cognitive intelligence to recognise and respond to human needs and emotions.

Rachel works as an "augmented human", providing customer service and a consultation service in replacement of a real person.

Soul Machines, which started operating as a commercial entity last July, was born out of the University of Auckland.


Rachel the avatar was first shown at US financial services conference Lendit in March, advising people on what credit card to choose.

IBM New Zealand head of artificial intelligence Chandan Ohri said the technology was moving beyond apps and towards the interactive side of cognitive processes.

Virtual reality software Shopper360, developed by Rush Digital and Lumaten, was showcased, featuring a VR headset and modelled on a supermarket. The software could be used to measure and record a shoppers' journey, generating useful data for brands and retailers.

AI and emotional intelligence offered companies the opportunity to expand and function in new ways, Ohri said.

The value of the cognitive market was expected to surpass $32 billion by 2019, up from $2b just two years ago.

"For us the key thing is augmenting the humans, so how do we make the lives of our fellow humans and people easier and make the cognitive decision-making processes much simpler and easier and help with the facilitation in the process."

Rachel the avatar, developed by Soul Machines using emotional cognitive technology.
Rachel the avatar, developed by Soul Machines using emotional cognitive technology.

The ability to control a robot through brain waves was also shown.

IBM's UK-based technical liaison Joshua Carr demonstrated how to control the movement a Star Wars BB-8 robot through brain waves. Thoughts are sent to the Cloud through Bluetooth. Carr used IBM's BlueMix hybrid cloud development platform to program a headset and therefore control the robot.


Ohri said some of the technologies could already been seen in workplace.

Paul Fitzgerald demonstrates VR technology, Shopper360. Photo / Dean Purcell
Paul Fitzgerald demonstrates VR technology, Shopper360. Photo / Dean Purcell

"If you look at the utilities sector they are collecting a lot of data points using cognitive to help with design-making," Ohri said. "I would say it is happening today, but it will continue to get more mature over the next 12 months."

The health sector would be the first to see the technology become mainstream, he said. "Health is an absolute first and it's having a lot of use cases. Retail is another one where we are finding more use cases, and engineering is another sector."

"There are around 25 industries [of benefit] in all, but from a New Zealand perspective we are seeing a lot of traction within retail, health and the public sector."