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Auckland airport gets 'digital' biosecurity officer

Backed by Westpac and developed by New Zealand-based FaceMe, Vai is expected to answer simple biometric security questions at the airport.

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Image: Supplied

Auckland's International Airport has announced the addition of an artificial intelligence bot to assist Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) staff with simple biometric questions.

The Virtual Assistant Interface (Vai) is stationed initially in the airport's biosecurity arrivals area for visiting passengers to ask questions that don't require human interaction.

Vai has been in operation since last week and is currently in proof-of-concept mode.

"The idea is for her to take some of the load off MPI officers during peak times by assisting staff with answering queries," MPI detection technology manager Brett Hickman said in a statement.

"This is about using technology to allow officers to focus on their important role of keeping pests and diseases out of New Zealand."

The tech was developed by New Zealand-based FaceMe, built using the company's digital employee platform. With training, FaceMe said its "employees" can offer personalised service through natural language, using biometrics to learn human interactions, and accessing the airport's databases for the answers to questions.

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"Vai uses a database of queries and answers that is constantly updated through her interactions," Hickman added.

"MPI is always looking for innovative ways, including emerging technologies, to improve the customer experience for arriving passengers and to increase their biosecurity awareness."

The initiative is backed by Westpac's Innovation Fund, which was born out of the All of Government banking tender and is a NZ$10 million initiative set up as a joint program between the Australian banking giant and the New Zealand government. The Innovation Fund invests in proposals that are expected to drive value for both the public sector and Westpac.

The Innovation Fund invested in Vai to explore how AI bots can be used across parts of government.

"The aim is to help create services and experiences that help grow a better and more innovative New Zealand," Westpac head of public sector strategy Brent Chalmers said of the initiative.

Commonwealth Bank of Australia subsidiary ASB Bank also welcomed one of FaceMe's bots earlier this month, with Josie employed to help SME business owners with setting up a business.

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"Much like the human mind, Josie's knowledge will develop with information through human interactions over time," FaceMe CEO and founder Danny Tomsett said in a statement last week. "As AI is still developing there are some misconceptions surrounding its impact on people. One of the biggest misconceptions about AI is that it's designed to 'replace humans'. Great AI should be designed to enhance what humans do and how they operate."

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