Editor’s note: Renee Wright and Allan Maurer are covering the 25th Cucalorus Festival this week in Wilmington for WRAL TechWire. Check back daily for more reports.

WILMINGTON – Healthcare patients may soon routinely interact with a digital human designed to answer their questions in easily understood conversations without fear of judgement or stigma. And someone like Cate Blanchett could be providing the voice.

So says Marie Johnson, managing director of Australia’s Centre for Digital Business, who spoke at the Cucalorus Connect Conference Thursday.

“Up to 60 percent of people are healthcare illiterate,” said Johnson, who led development of Nadia, the first AI digital human for service delivery. Much healthcare information is provided at a college reading level and presents “an impenetrable barrier to accessing services,” for many patients, she said.

Marie Johnson talking about digital humans at the Cucalorus Connect Conference. Photo by Allan Maurer. Copyright Capitol Broadcasting Co., ARR.

“Cardiovascular disease and health illiteracy is a deadly combination affecting millions of people globally,” she added. “Disadvantaged communities, people with disabilities and women suffer disproportionately.”

Johnson and her team developed Nadia for Australia’s Digital Transformation Strategy, designed to help people with disabilities. In North Carolina, she is working with the New Hanover Innovation Center, launched by New Hanover Regional Medical Center last summer in partnership with CastleBranch’s tekMountain.

Beginning her presentation, Johnson introduced the Cucalorus Connect audience to Hannah, the latest digital human, an AI digital human cardiac coach who assists patients with heart problems.

Her own husband, an award-winning engineer who has had 8 heart bypass operations, was patient number one in developing the Cardiac Coach. He appeared in a short video during the presentation.

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The first digital human was developed in collaboration with patients with disabilities and a variety of technology experts. Challenges included creating an interface that has emotional resonance but does not trigger adverse reactions.

The digital human has to be someone the patient trusts. They have to be “like people and bring back the human dimension in a way that scales empathy,” Johnson said.

One way to do that is to engage celebrity avatars or voices that speak to the patient’s community.

Actress Cate Blanchett, for instance, was generous in giving her time and voice to the project, Johnson noted, while others who might suit certain audiences, she suggested, include sport stars such as Magic Johnson.

Cate Blanchett provided time and her voice to the digital human project. Creative Commons License.

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