Introducing Nadia: artificial intelligence and access to justice

There’s no mix up this time, Oscar winners really are transforming online legal advice, says Roger Smith

The Australians may be about to shake up the world of online legal assistance. Their National Disability Insurance Agency has hired double Oscar-winning actress Cate Blanchett as the voice of a groundbreaking avatar, who will answer online questions from the public on disability. Ms Blanchett is working in tandem with an artificial intelligence (AI) expert, Dr Mark Sagar, also a double Oscar-winner. The result – in about a year’s time – will be Nadia. She is likely to raise the bar globally in terms of how advice and information can be delivered to online users.

Nadia is an online virtual assistant – a visual Siri – who will be able write, speak and chat online in answer to questions about a new National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). As described by one of the technologists involved, Nadia ‘looks like a person but she’s a super smart computer that responds in a natural way.’ She will have Ms Blanchett’s voice and facial movements. The actor was selected for the ‘warmth’ and clarity with which she speaks.

Ms Blanchett is recording thousands of sentences which will be used in themselves and also be capable of being cut up into different sounds and reassembled as the system learns. The process can be seen below.

The actress makes a good ambassador for the project, explaining a personal engagement: ‘I have had disability very close to me in my family.’

The technology is provided by Soul Machines, a New Zealand company of which Dr Sagar is chief executive. He won his Oscars for scientific and technological achievements on films like Spiderman 2, King Kong and Avatar. That clearly provided a link for the actor: ‘I heard that Mark Sagar, who is an astonishing computer wizard, was developing the avatar. So I thought the authentic connection of the people who will be served by the NDIS and Nadia, and Mark’s incredible brain, was an exciting combination.’

Dr Sagar is a serious AI researcher, whose work extends well beyond films. He began his career by building computer simulations of the human eye for virtual surgery and has moved on to work on emotionally responsive avatars – currently culminating in ‘Baby X’, which simulates the way a baby can learn. Dr Sagar regards the visual presentation as important: ‘We have been really looking at the power of the human face as really a new type of computer, a human computer interface.’ The AI input should mean, as Ms Blanchett says: ‘The more people with disability interact with her the more she learns and the better she gets.’

Access to funding for a mainstream government programme has meant that resources could be allocated to its promotion that would be unthinkable in most legal aid contexts. However, the technology is clearly transferable. If Nadia can give you information on Australian disability benefits, she can easily be programmed with any other accent to do the same in relation to any piece of information. There is a bit of a political backlash against the cost of the new Australian scheme but, hopefully for those interested in this element of the project, the major expense of creating Nadia has been incurred and will be immune to any cutbacks.

If successful, Nadia will represent an enormous step forward in the provision of online legal assistance. She represents a major advance on the conventional linear approach to providing information on a website. To an extent, her creation is foreshadowed by some existing – if more mundane – developments. British Columbia’s Justice Education Society uses a much simpler visual avatar to give advice in its site on small claims, albeit as just film of a person making a statement. Interactivity – albeit not in the visual form – is the theme behind developments like the Rechtwijzer and MyLawBC.

We inch towards systems where advice and information can be tailored to individual queries; where that advice and information can be demanded and transmitted visually and orally; and where, ultimately, artificial intelligence can be deployed to improve the quality and range of what is provided. The involvement of those in the commercial film sector and the funding of a wider range of government departments might open doors to developments which would otherwise prove unattainable.
This article is based on a post to, funded by the Legal Education Foundation.

About Roger Smith

Roger is an expert in domestic and international aspects of legal aid, human rights and access to justice. Roger is a visiting professor of law at London South Bank University and an honorary professor at the University of Kent. He is a solicitor and has been director of the Legal Action Group, JUSTICE and West Hampstead Community Law Centre as well as director of policy and legal education at the Law Society, London, and solicitor to the Child Poverty Action Group. Roger was awarded an OBE in 2009 and received a lifetime achievement award from the Law Society in October 2012

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