Department of Human Services plans next generation of virtual assistants

DHS uses virtual assistants to boost productivity, customer service

The Department of Human Services has revealed its plans for a next generation of virtual assistants.

DHS is planning to deploy ‘Oliver’ and ‘Argus’ (Gus), which the department says will have the ability “to capture and send information to other applications and assist in processing.”

Gus and Oliver will add to the ranks of virtual assistants already in use at the departments.

In a submission to parliamentary inquiry on the digital delivery of government services, the department revealed details of its investment in virtual assistants, which are being used to answers questions both from DHS staff and clients of the department’s agencies.

A virtual assistant dubbed ‘Roxy’, based on Microsoft’s Cortana, is helping staff at the Department of Human Services process online claims.

Roxy was rolled out in October 2016 and has been used to help staff process student, carer and age pension online claims. Roxy has answered some 95,000 questions from staff since October, and its knowledge base spans some 6680 questions.

A second virtual assistant — Sam — was rolled out in July 2017. Sam is accessible from the students and trainees and families pages on the department’s website and can help visitors navigate humanservices.gov.au. The service has answered more than 150,000 queries, according to the department

The department also has a small physical robot — Naomi — based at its Technology Innovation Centre. Naomi and similar robots could be used to “complement front of house services helping people with directions and basic questions,” DHS said.

The department said it is still working with the National Disability Insurance Agency on the development of its avatar-based virtual assistant Nadia. Nadia uses IBM’s Watson platform and is voiced by actor Cate Blanchett.

DHS CIO Gary Sterrenberg told a May Senate Estimates hearing that “it is really early days, and we really think there needs to be a lot more testing with this technology before it can be unleashed on the public”.

Nadia will be multilingual and able to communicate through written and spoken questions and answers.

The DHS revealed at the Estimates hearing that no go-live date had been set for the service.

“Nadia is still in development and combines a human face and voice with cognitive intelligence, leverages sentiment analysis and natural language processing,” the DHS said in its submission to the digital delivery of services inquiry.

In September the ABC reported that the project had stalled.

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