Rumours swirl that NDIS’s $3.5m star-studded AI-project has been dumped

Published on the 27/09/2017 | Written by Jonathan Cotton


Govt IT failures

Has fear of govt IT failure become self-fulfilling prophecy?...

Despite the backing of ‘star power’ including Cate Blanchett, the AI-based ‘Nadia’ project – which would help users engage with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) via a virtual assistant – has now reportedly stalled.

According to some sources, recent high-profile IT failures such as the ABS Census and Centrelink ‘robo debt’ disasters has spooked decision-makers in the government, scuttling the $3.5m project.

Anonymous sources apparently “close to the project” told the ABC that “they fear the census and Centrelink ‘robo-debt’ debacles took their toll on government-wide appetite for risk.”

Rumours that the project had stalled circulated – and were dismissed – earlier in the year, however the removal of the Nadia project from the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) Awards seemed to confirm the worst.

Gary Sterrenberg, CIO of the Department of Human Services, told a senate inquiry in May that the project was not stalling “per-se”.

“There is early indication that this type of technology has got a significant contribution to make, but it should be caveated that it is very early in what it is.”

Sterrenberg talked up the potential: “The promise is huge in terms of access, choice and control in how you would want to interact with a government agency. But 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.”

He added that the department’s advice has always been ‘to test it on our own to make sure this technology supports our own staff first. At some later stage it will be ready to be used externally’.

“But the technology is not yet at the level at which it can be used. There is still a lot more testing.”

That senate inquiry also revealed that the project didn’t have an official ‘go-live’ date and the DHS wasn’t even working to an informal one internally.

While no official statement has been made, a spokesperson from the NDIA has said the organisation is continuing to “work closely with partners” to improve the technology.

Since announcement, the project has drawn much anticipation and fanfare; two time Hollywood Academy Award winner and Soul Machines CEO Mark Sagar was tasked with creating the face and ‘personality’ of the interface, with voice-over work provided free of charge by another double Academy Award winner, actress Cate Blanchett.

“The more interactions she has with people, the more her knowledge bank will grow,” enthused National Disability Insurance Agency deputy chief Louise Glanville at the time.

“She can speak, write and chat online and has been designed to meet international accessibility guidelines. She can already understand thousands of questions put to her, and will answer with clear and simple responses.”

OK – but we’ll just go back to our contention that AI is far more likely to make promises it just can’t keep. For the foreseeable future, at least.

The NDIS takes around 6000 calls a week and client numbers are expected to grow from 32,000 to 460,000 over the next three years. The Nadia project was expected to ease the resulting pressure on call centres.

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