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Why this military museum is using a chatbot during COVID-19

August 14, 2020, 1:00 PM UTC

The next time people visit the Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum in Canada to see World War II–era tanks and artillery, a virtual avatar named Master Corporal Lana will welcome and screen them for COVID-19.

It’s part of the museum’s plan to open to the public on Saturday after having shut down since mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. After all, Lana, who is purely digital, can’t spread COVID-19.

As Jeremy Blowers, the executive director of the museum, in Oshawa, Ontario, explained, the chatbot helps protect staff and volunteers from COVID-19 as well as give a glimpse into the future of how cutting-edge technology can be used for education.

The Ontario Regiment RCAC Museum has more than 140 operational military vehicles including tanks and cargo carriers used in the 20th century up to recent conflicts like the Afghanistan War, he said.

Blowers noted that the museum had been developing Lana before the coronavirus outbreak as a way to stay up-to-date with technological trends like augmented reality that could help attract visitors, particularly younger people. After the coronavirus pandemic hit, forcing the museum to close on March 15, Blowers had a eureka moment, deciding to use Lana as a greeter when the museum finally reopened.

He said Lana has a “welcoming and cool factor” that he suspects visitors will enjoy. 

“And youths don’t want to sit at a kiosk,” Blowers said about using a more conventional check-in device.

The museum partnered with business software startup CloudConstable and Intel to develop and operate Lana, which users will interact with via a 3.5-foot digital screen. Cameras that are connected to the screen help Lana recognize and respond to people when they walk up and talk to her.

Lana isn’t the most realistic looking digital avatar; she resembles a character from a mid-2000s video game who has slicked-back brown hair and wears military fatigues. But she gets the job done when it comes to asking basic COVID-19-related questions.

During a typical Lana interaction, which Blowers said will last 54 seconds, the chatbot asks visitors six COVID-19 screening questions, such as whether they’ve left Canada during the past 14 days or whether they or someone in their family have experienced coronavirus-related symptoms.

Unfortunately, Lana can’t pick up on whether someone is lying to her. But Blowers said a human staff member will be near Lana, behind a glass panel, ensuring things go smoothly and that no one is “taking stuff off the walls and leaving.”

Additionally, people talking to Lana will have their body temperature checked as an additional COVID-19 safety measure. Museum staff will follow up with anyone who fails their COVID-19 screening.

Although Blowers is excited about the museum’s reopening, he expects only a fraction of the number of visitors who typically come to see the institution’s collection. The museum normally has 200 visitors on a Saturday or Sunday, but he thinks there will be only about 40 people, who have already bought their tickets online.

And despite the precautions the museum is taking, such as requiring people to wear masks and socially distance, as well as providing hand sanitizer, he’s concerned about contracting the virus.

“It’s frightening,” he said. 

But he feels an obligation to be at the museum to let the public in.

“I wouldn’t be in the industry and gone through the trouble if I wasn’t at heart a history nerd and a teacher,” Blowers said. “I love sharing knowledge with the public.”