Cognitive solutions provider OutThought was brought on board with the University of South Australia (UniSA) through its partnership with IBM, to build and design a virtual agent named Paola, taking aim at the healthcare sector.
Paola is part of UniSA’s study into the Mediterranean lifestyle and physical activity, with a remit to act as a personal health coach 24/7 for study participants, providing responses to queries and up-to date information without much human intervention.
As participants in the study continue their interaction with Paola, the virtual assistant will continuously learn and modify its responses.
OutThought director Paul van der Linden said their focus was on using innovative technologies such as virtual assistants to help Australians improve their lifestyle and health outcomes.
The project took six months to completion, and OutThought will be continuously supporting UniSA through the 12 week healthcare study, which is currently at the half-way mark.
“Part of the success of this project has been the way we have been able to come together with UniSA. We rely on their domain expertise, and with any project like this we need to understand the role they’re trying to automate through the virtual assistant, as well as educate them on what is realistically possible and what isn’t with technology,” van der Linden said.
“IBM Watson creates a great framework for delivering these kinds of systems together with a platform that we’ve developed, which allows us to work with clients more effectively to better understand the dialogue.”
OutThought director Lisa Bouari said it was an interesting process to take part in as most of the study participants had never been exposed to a virtual assistant previously.
“When we designed it, we had to really think about how we could make the interaction easy and seamless for users that would be doing their health check-in each week,” Bouari said. “We tried to design it in a way that was really simple with email reminders that would take them to the assistant and can start chatting with Paola, right through to having a support channel and chat area where if they really got stuck, they could ask questions.”
Bouari said UniSA was also potentially looking into using this experience, and exploring other areas such as voice recognition, taking Paola into responding to more queries beyond the study capabilities, into other health related areas such as weight loss.
Established in 2017, OutThought has up to 10 employees and its client list stretches into retail and public sector space. The company was born out of seeing a need in the market for making virtual assistant technologies using AI, targeting small and medium sized organisations.
“We developed a platform that means clients can use technologies such as IBM Watson assistant, and we continue to work with organisations that want to make their foray into that space, but don’t have the skills in-house to execute it successfully,” Bouari said.
The main challenge, van der Linden said, was centred on bringing together the domain and technical expertise to build the virtual assistant to suit the project’s requirements.
“We’ve worked hard to develop the platform and tools that allows us to work with clients in a very effective manner to produce a high quality virtual assistant quite rapidly,” van der Linden said.