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New Mexico District Court Enlists Virtual Receptionist

Her name is Clara — a nod to the Spanish word "claro" meaning clear — and she's a new virtual receptionist, a first-of-its-kind avatar equipped with artificial intelligence that helps visitors navigate the courthouse.

by Phaedra Haywood, The Santa Fe New Mexican / February 24, 2020
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(TNS) — She has curly brown hair, warm brown eyes and and there are plans for her to speak at least four languages.

Her name is Clara — a nod to the Spanish word claro meaning clear — and she's the New Mexico First Judicial District Court's new virtual receptionist, a first-of-its-kind avatar equipped with artificial intelligence that helps visitors navigate the courthouse.

The lobby of Santa Fe's three-story district courthouse has a massive reception desk. But it's been vacant since the downtown building opened in 2013, little more than a place for people to put things while struggling into their winter coats or refastening their belts after passing through the metal detector.

If someone had a question, they had to go to the clerk's office, where they could take a number.

Clara is the court's attempt to make the courthouse less intimidating and more accessible to the public, particularly people with literacy or language issues.

"Using technology to serve people — that's our primary goal," said Paula Couselo-Findikoglu, manager of the Administrative Office of the Courts' Language Access Services.

"You see a lot of kiosks," said Couselo-Findikoglu, who came up with the idea for Clara. "The new thing is the integration of an avatar and artificial intelligence. ... We are the first ones in the nation."

Couselo-Findikoglu said Clara, who appears on a large flat screen in the lobby, was installed in January and is a prototype for avatars that could one day be placed in courthouses across the state.

Court-users can use a touch screen or their voice to get directions to any of the nine courtrooms in the building, access a list of frequently asked questions and email themselves a variety of forms such as divorce petitions or applications for restraining orders.

But by summer's end, Couselo-Findikoglu said, Clara should be interfaced with the court's online court system and be able to provide users who enter or say their name or case number with the time and locations of their court proceedings.

Clara speaks, writes and understands English. By year's end, she should be able to speak Spanish, Navajo and Vietnamese.

Couselo-Findikoglu said the court gets more requests for Navajo translators than any other language besides Spanish. Vietnamese was selected with Albuquerque's population in mind.

In the future, courts in different parts of the state will be able to customize the languages Clara speaks for their own demographics.

Teaching Clara to speak Navajo has been challenging, Couselo-Findikoglu said, because there is no text-to-speech or speech-to-text technology for that language. She said the state is creating its own by having Navajo speakers translate and record thousands of phrases pertinent to court users.

Rio Rancho translator Frank Morgan translated court terms into written Navajo, and Farmington court interpreter Joanna Manygoats is Clara's official Navajo voice.

Clara can already answer 7,000 questions, Couselo-Findikoglu said, and keeps a record of the questions she can't answer so her human creators can teach her how to respond the next time.

"She gets some pretty hilarious questions," Couselo-Findikoglu said.

For example: "How do I divorce my [expletive] husband?" And, when kids are involved, "Can I get a Ninja Turtle?"

Clara — who began her life as an online assistant — has a built-in "personality" and can, when asked, tell a few jokes.

Clara's current iteration costs about $10,000, but she can also be installed on smaller, less expensive devices such as an iPad, Couselo-Findikoglu said. Funding for the avatar has come from Language Access Services' operating budget.

Couselo-Findikoglu said the realization of the AI-avatar prototype — through combining existing technologies — has been a group effort that has included Albuquerque software developer Alexander Smith and Ideum, a Corrales-based hardware company that specializes in museum exhibits.

Students from the University of New Mexico Law School and staff from other judicial districts in the state have also contributed to the project.

©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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