4 April 2019

Research on a New Chatbot to Help Support Military Personnel


Military personnel may one day be able to get personalised day to day support for their busy lives thanks to a new project being delivered in response to a MOD Funding Competition. The project is being led by us in collaboration with Altruist Enterprises and the Institute for Employment Studies. Daden and Altruist are both based at the Innovation Birmingham Campus. The competition was run under the auspices of the Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA), sponsored by the Defence People (which sets the strategy for developing a capable and motivated military and civilian workforce within the MOD). The initial contract is worth £247,720.

The project aims to develop a mobile chatbot application with the intention of trialling it at RAF Fylingdales in North Yorkshire. In creating the application and content the team are working with the military users and managers to identify what support is needed, and also what other information and functionality would encourage personnel to use the application on a regular basis. Military life can require high levels of resilience from Forces’ personal with lengthy separations, frequent moves, deployments, shift-patterns and operational duties all adding to the load.  It is hoped that the app will help to reduce the friction of day-to-day military life, improve mental and physical health, well-being and resilience, support personal planning and development, and ensure that military personnel are more informed, motivated and fulfilled.

The app, which builds on previous work by us and the University of Worcester for the MOD, is designed to work on personal mobile phones and provide personnel with quick, direct, 24/7 access to information and support resources to help both them and their families. The app can also take a more pro-active role, offering up suggestions for short training sessions to help build resilience and well-being, to improve sleep, to manage stress, and to plan future personal development and career progression. It is not intended that the app does everything itself, rather it helps signpost users to trusted and appropriate web and mobile apps and resources, and of course to human support when that is the best way to deal with an issue.

RAF Fylingdales Station Commander Wg Cdr Alun Walton said "The virtual life coaching application will allow RAF Fylingdales serving military and families to engage with different aspects of modern life by embracing ever-present technology. This is a real step in the right direction for welfare and resilience and we look forward to contributing to the development of the application for all of Defence in the future."

David Burden, Managing Director of Daden Limited said, “Having something you can turn to quickly, at any time of the day or night, to get some advice about something that you might not right now want to speak to  another human about can be of real benefit. But from our work in this area so far we’ve been impressed at how mature users can be – recognising when a chatbot system like this is of real help, and when they really are better off speaking to a human.” 

Katie Buckingham, Managing Director of Altruist Enterprises, said “We are very pleased to be involved in such an exciting and worthwhile project. There has been a rising trend in the rate of UK Armed Forces personnel assessed with a mental disorder over the past 10 years. Our team of mental health and training specialists, in partnership with Daden and the IES, aim to provide individuals with the tools to build resilience and maintain positive well-being through the many challenges of military life.”

Dr Alison Carter, Principal Research Fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, said “IES cross-sector research found that today’s job entrants - younger people in particular – are comfortable consuming information through technology, automation and chatbots, being handed over to a person when required. This already happens during recruitment and learning, and can be easily applied to cultivating better working lives.  IES is delighted to support this project which we expect will make a positive contribution to the wellbeing and engagement of military personnel.”

The current development phase of the project runs until May 2019, when hopefully approval will be given to continue to the live trial at RAF Fylingdales in the second half of 2019. As with much current MOD funded work there is also a real interest how such developments can also be used in the non-military domain to help grow UKplc. As such we are also developing a “civilian” demonstrator of the concept and talking to business and other organisations about how this could help support their own employees, staff and even students.

29 March 2019

Daden U day - Slack integration

Writing to a slack channel.

At Daden we use slack to communicate with other team members and as a way of passing useful information, jokes and items of interest around the company.

An article on Code Project on how to communicate programatically with Slack grabbed my interest so for the February Daden U day I decided to see how difficult it would be to "talk to slack".

As it turns out it's actually really easy, all the information you need is here...


From start to finish it only to about 15 minutes to have a simple example up and working, so a big thanks to Ryan Peden for writing the article.

Now we are able to write to Slack the next step is deciding what we can do with it. At the moment thoughts are along the lines of getting notifications when web sites throw exceptions as well as integrating some of Daden's many chat bots.

21 March 2019

Digital Catapult Future of Training Showcase Tour

Back in October last year we were chosen as one of "six immersive companies creating engaging and innovative content to revolutionise the way we train" by the UK Government's Digital Catapult. As well as having a system on permanent display down at heir London Headquarters we've also been invited to take part in a touring showcase of VR in training, alongside local companies in each region. The first event was in London, and the second, last month, in Gateshead. The next one is in Belfast on Tuesday 26th March, so if your in Northern Ireland (or fancy a hop across the border from Eire) then we'd love to see you there. Details at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/the-future-of-training-virtual-augmented-and-mixed-reality-tickets-55902636290

11 March 2019

Daden UDay: Chatbots and Autonomous Avatars in Second Life

For my DadenU Day I spent the time revisiting our code for controlling autonomous avatars in Second Life. The system currently uses the Corrade service (although I had a look for something better), which is certainly a lot more stable than when we last used it a couple of years ago. Corrade is very much an avatar controller, it has no smarts itself (so is like LibOMV in that respect), so we built a small LSL script to provide the interface from Corrade back to our Chatscript server which now forms the core of the bot's brain. The pathway is below:

The first task has been just to re-establish existing functionality before we move on to new stuff. The LSL script reported memory errors (you only get 64k!), so we stripped out the nice-to-haves and got the core working from bot to Corrade to LSL to Corrade to bot.

To get the other functionality back in we have to use an old LSL technique of putting the extra chunks in a new script and then using the llMessage function to call with a set of parameters - very messy as you can't pass much, but still the only way to do it in LSL which has no concept of a script library, shared scripts, or a script to script API!

The final bit was talking to Chatscript. Iain sorted a plain REST API into our Chatscript environment, I uploaded the old Abi (our virtual receptionist) files to the server, and finally we had the whole path with a user in SL being able to ask the Abi/Halo avatar questions about Daden.

Next steps are to start to build some of the Halo "brain" into Chatscript, porting some of our earlier Discourse work, and maturing the LSL interface. The aim is that by December 2019 we'll actually be beyond where we were with this in December 2009 when we were finalists in the BCS Machine Intelligence Competition!

14 February 2019

Virtual Humans: Today and Tomorrow

Daden MD David Burden, writing with one of our long time collaborators Prof. Maggi-Savin Baden from the University of Worcester, has just produced a new book on Virtual Humans. The book has been published by Taylor & Francis in New York and covers the technical, social and ethical elements of what makes a virtual human, and how these technologies might develop in the future.

There is more information one the book, and updated content since this is a fast moving sector, at www.virtualhumans.ai, along with links to Amazon if you want to purchase a copy.

A few choice reviews so far:

"If you have little knowledge of what a virtual human is, but want to find out, then this is the book for you. For researchers in the virtual human field this is a definite must.” - Prof. Kevin Warwick

"A thorough, research-based treatment of how digital entities with human-like features and capabilities have left the domain of science fiction and are rapidly becoming a major aspect of human culture. Significantly, the authors recognize and discuss the great ethical, moral and social implications of these technological developments which makes their work relevant and important for the social sciences and humanities as well as the domains of computing and information sciences. I certainly intend to use Virtual Humans as an assigned reading in the interdisciplinary courses I teach on the personal and social impact of leading-edge digital technologies." - Professor Richard Gilbert

"Intelligent, pragmatic and insightful, Virtual Humans is an essential guide for those who want to understand the complex landscape of today’s technology when thinking about designing and building a virtual human. Helpfully, it clearly deploys a wealth of supporting analysis, case studies, research, ethical questions, and moral dilemmas and adds a refreshing dose of healthy common sense along the way." - Nicola Strong, Strong Enterprises

14 January 2019

Ethics and AI

Just before Christmas I attended the TechUK Ethics & AI conference in London. It was an excellent event with great speakers and an knowledgeable and interesting bunch of delegates. "AI" was being interpreted more as machine learning than conversational AI/virtual humans, but here are a few of the key take-aways:

1) Kate Coughlan of the BBC presented some research they'd done on public attitudes towards AI - showing which areas excited people, and which they were wary of. Overall them seemed more wary than excited. Interestingly the notion of digital immortality came out as one of the few positives!

2) Ethics (AI and other tech) should be about making sure that people are “safe” even if they don’t care or have the time

3) The Royal Society and  Ipsos Mori also doing interesting public attitudes research. The Royal Society found that "only 9% of those surveyed had heard the term ‘machine learning’" - hence the AI catch-all! The Royal Society has also issues an AI Narratives report.

5) The RS presentation included an image from Boyle's notes (see image at top) which showed "extending life" as one of his top priorities - https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/7798012/Robert-Boyles-prophetic-scientific-predictions-from-the-17th-century-go-on-display-at-the-Royal-Society.html

6) Luciano Floridi (https://twitter.com/Floridi) was the keynote. He has a useful 5 factor AI Ethics model which is based on a bio-ethics one.:

  • Beneficence (do only good): Promoting Well-Being, Preserving Dignity, and Sustaining the Planet
  • Non-maleficence (do no harm): Privacy, Security and “Capability Caution”
  • Autonomy (of the human, not the AI): The Power to Decide (Whether to Decide)
  • Justice: Promoting Prosperity and Preserving Solidarity (and eliminating discrimination)
  • Explicability: Enabling the Other Principles Through Intelligibility and Accountability

All in all a great day, and certainly going along next year.

3 January 2019

Virtual Route Learning for Birmingham Community Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

A recent study by the Birmingham Community Healthcare (BCHC) NHS Foundation Trust found that after brain injury over 70% of patients reported a reduction in their ability to navigate and this had a major impact on quality of life.  If you take a moment to think about all of the cognitive skills you draw on just for a simple journey, this can become quite a complex task for someone with difficulties in all of those skills. In an outdoor environment we often rely on tall distinctive landmarks to help us build a ‘bird’s eye’ or overhead map of the environment or we use local landmarks such as post boxes or shop fronts that help us learn a route using more of a ‘worms eye’ view. 

Prior research had already shown that people used similar navigation strategies in a VR environment as they did in the real world. So, in order to better understand way finding and route learning in people with acquired brain injury (ABI - e.g. stroke and traumatic brain injury), BCHC asked us to develop a virtual simulation that patients and researchers could use – saving a massive amount of time on outdoor, providing greater control, and reducing risk. We created a network of identical streets lined with typical Victorian terrace housing, and gave researchers the ability to drag and drop distant landmarks (e.g. church spires, tower blocks) and nearby landmarks (e.g. pillar boxes, bus shelters) to create different route finding challenges. The researcher could then mark up the desired route with virtual arrows and let the patient learn the route from the landmarks, and then remove the arrows to see how well they could navigate with only the selected landmarks.

Theresa Powell, Consultant Clinical Psychologist at BCHC reported that they found Daden “very customer centred, checking with us at each stage in the development that it was exactly what we wanted.  None of our very ‘un’ technically phrased questions were ever too much for them and if our build requests went beyond the realms of possibility, they were always able to find an acceptable solution with us.”

The system has generated far more data than BCHC had expected. There are now two Doctoral students, two Masters students and two BSc students who have or are using the software in their research projects. Between them they have so far tested around 20 people with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and 30 to 40 controls for various projects.

And the findings so far? One project looking at the impact of contact sports on route learning showed that female American Football players performed worse on recalling certain types of routes than student controls. Another pilot project showed that people with TBI perform worse than controls when only landmarks in the distance were available and BCHC is continuing to gather more data to see if this is supported. Another new project is even combining the virtual route learning app with a fMRI scanner!