Auckland Uni spin-off to develop ‘emotionally responsive’ avatars

Artificial intelligence company Soul Machines backed by Horizons Ventures

The University of Auckland has launched its biggest commercial spin-off to date, artificial intelligence company Soul Machines, with backing of US$7.5 million in its initial financing round from Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Horizons Ventures.

Horizons Ventures was an early investor in Siri, acquired by Apple, and Deep Mind, acquired by Google. Phil Chen from Horizons Ventures will join the Soul Machines board. New Zealand-based technology entrepreneur Greg Cross has also joined Soul Machines to launch the new company and accelerate commercialisation.

According to the University, Soul Machines is developing a completely new user interface between humans and their machines, based on technology created by Dr Mark Sagar and his team at the University’s Auckland Bioengineering Institute (ABI).

“Dr Sagar won two academy awards for his work on the Avatar blockbuster. He becomes the CEO of Soul Machines. He also heads the Bioengineering Institute’s Lab for Animate Technologies,” the university said.

“Soul Machines will develop technology in the rapidly accelerating artificial intelligence sector. Its lifelike, emotionally responsive avatars will have the potential to become the interfaces between humans and machines across a variety of platforms.”

Sagar said Soul Machines’ goal was to define the user experience for artificial intelligence systems and platforms. “Our engineering team will focus on bringing human life to technology that is intelligent, emotive and adaptive.”

Auckland UniServices CEO, Andy Shenk, added: “Soul Machines demonstrates the phenomenal power that comes from the unique combination of art, science and creative insights that Mark Sagar and his team have produced.

“In the same way, we at UniServices believe that Soul Machines also demonstrates the unique power that comes from the combination of world-class research at the University of Auckland and the commercialisation expertise that we have built over almost 30 years.”

The technology underpinning Soul Machine is BabX, developed by Sagar and his engineering research team in the University’s Laboratory for Animate Technologies.

According to the Lab’s web site, “BabyX is an interactive animated virtual infant prototype, … a computer generated psychobiological simulation … [and] an experimental vehicle incorporating computational models of basic neural systems involved in interactive behaviour and learning.

“These models are embodied through advanced 3D computer graphics models of the face and upper body of an infant. The system can analyse video and audio inputs in real time to react to the caregiver’s or peer’s behaviour using behavioural models.”

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