A new police officer is reporting for duty in New Zealand. But unlike other cops, this officer’s an AI named Ella, short for Electronic Life-Like Assistant. Her station is the digital kiosk in the lobby of the national police headquarters in Wellington. There, she serves as a virtual assistant to the concierge team. Her duties include welcoming visitors, guiding them through the guest pass process, relaying collected data to law enforcement personnel, and providing information like non-emergency numbers to help curtail long lines.

Meet Ella, The New Zealand Police Force's First-Ever AI Officer.

Tech firms Intela AI and Soul Machines spearheaded the development of Ella, with Erin Greally assuming the role of lead researcher. For starters, Ella’s face was conceptualized as a composite of 26 different people. She’s also been programmed to realistically account for voice, tone, speech, body language, and empathy. To give her an added level of warmth, she’s even been designed to smile and blink. She can greet you, carry a full-on conversation, and even simulate the appropriate facial expressions in real-time. Of course, she is still a virtual assistant, or avatar, on a digital kiosk screen, and not a bona fide three-dimensional robot (yet).

Ella is part of a pilot program wherein New Zealand law enforcement can innovatively connect with the public. Her trial run spans three months, an in May, her performance will be reviewed to see how her technology can be further applied and upgraded. If successful, Ella will go on to grace other law enforcement kiosks across New Zealand.

“Her capabilities are basic at this stage as she is a proof of concept, but we see some real benefits of digital person technology if we can equip the AI with more knowledge and capabilities, and it can learn from more interactions,” explained New Zealand Commissioner of Police Mike Bush in a recent statement. “This trial is designed to help police understand if a digital person makes sense in a policing context, but Ella could eventually provide a variety of non-emergency services and advice in more places and on more devices, such as the NZ Police app and Police Connect.”

New Zealand has been taking several steps to modernize its police force lately. The other new technology implemented is the “Police Connect” digital kiosk, a self-service platform that provides people with answers to commonly asked queries, connects them to call centers, and reports non-emergency mishaps as they occur. Possible future improvements to this kiosk include CCTV monitoring and built-in alarms, as noted in the New Zealand Herald. It’s likely that Ella will also work in tandem with this, particularly when citizens start to access it for information or advice.

Commissioner Bush was quick to point out that Ella would not replace her human counterparts. Indeed, the New Zealand police force is looking to grow its numbers. “We’re in the process of recruiting 1,800 new staff to bolster our frontline and ensure we have the capabilities to deliver the best services, emergency and non-emergency, to everyone in New Zealand,” her said.

New Zealand man uses the high-tech Police Connect Kiosk to speak to the police.

Rather, Ella and all the new technology being deployed are a means to enhance the force and bring it to the 21st century.

“We’re very much just starting this journey, as Police Connect, Ella, and other modern digital technologies present many more exciting opportunities for us to provide new and improved policing services,” Bush explains