This Agency Is Making an AI Friend for Kids Who’ve Lost Parents in Combat

Big-hearted approach from We Believers

When Mom or Dad spends long tours of duty far from home while serving in the military, their kids sometimes need extra understanding, encouragement and emotional support.

If a parent dies in combat, these children can struggle mightily to cope with the loss and adjust to a new reality. Understandably, they’re at greater risk for depression and other mental-health problems. According to a recent study, one-quarter of such kids contemplate suicide.

Creative agency We Believers is stepping up with Ai Buddy, an artificial-intelligence system designed to assist youngsters caught up in such difficult situations.

The technology features a kid-friendly interface with a cast of cute cartoon characters, including a teddy bear, a monkey and an oversized, cuddly purple beetle.

According to the project film below, “Ai Buddy will be trained by psychologists and pediatricians to be able to work closely with the kids and respond immediately during a crisis. It collects information from close relatives by scanning email, text and social media to become a virtual member of the family.”

Known for its innovative initiatives—such as the edible six-pack rings it made for Saltwater Brewery that feed, instead of kill, marine life—We Believers generated the Ai Buddy concept for social-services client VidaxCenter.

“Every day, words like ‘war,’ ‘nuclear bombs’ and ‘massive destruction’ show up in the updates from the news apps,” We Believers co-founder and creative chief Gustavo Lauria tells Adweek. “So, we decided to develop something that at least can solve part of the problem” by helping kids who lose a parent on the battlefield.

Ultimately, Ai Buddy will be programmed to have real-time conversations with children, read them stories, assist with homework, give advice, and even scan physical inputs to detect potential emergencies (such as elevated heart rates, which could aid medical professionals in diagnosing depression or anxiety disorders).

Designed to be accessible across multiple devices, Ai Buddy boasts an AR/VR component for deeper immersion. For example, kids can don headsets and play virtual Frisbee in their living rooms with the aforementioned beetle.

That sounds kind of addictive, especially for youngsters struggling through tough times. Lest they grow too dependent, Ai Buddy “will be set up to expire after a careful process,” we’re told in the video, “once the child is psychologically ready to let it go.”

Currently, the team is finishing up a prototype, and hopes to “be on track for the final minimum build by the end of the year,” says Marco Vega, co-founder and strategy chief at We Believers. “The anticipated investment for this stage will be on the lower end of six figures. We anticipate our first rollout 8-12 months from today.”

Initially, “the focus will be in the U.S. for an English Ai Buddy, and the next language we will incorporate is Spanish,” says Gonzalo Alonso, chief executive at digital consultancy ClowderTank, which is handling product development. “Once Ai Buddy is fluent and trained in both, we will proceed with training in other cultural contexts and languages. We will also develop a more basic SMS-based version in different languages for those countries with no smartphone penetration or limited internet access.”

Ai Buddy would be offered to military families free of charge.

“Funds will flow from government entities, private donors or foundations,” says Vega. “Further down the road, our AI-as-a-service model will allow for the API to be available for independent developers to add functionalities, and for parents.”

Though the email scanning and data gathering components must be handled with care—and the team assures us they will be—the concept seems big-hearted and in tune with the times. Accessing functions via phones, tablets and familiar devices keeps the system from seeming too intrusive. (A 3-foot-tall bot-buddy would just feel creepy.)

Ultimately, Ai Buddy could give troubled kids some added comfort, spark their imaginations and help them break out of their shells. It could become an important ally in one of the biggest battles of their lives.

“The initial version of Ai Buddy is just the beginning of something that could be much bigger,” says Lauria. “By using characters powered with AI, we can help kids with all kind of problems. In the future, for example, we can use [such a system] to make education in the U.S. more democratic, by providing the same possibilities to those who don’t have access to good schools just because they live in low-income areas. Or we could make Ai Buddy available for children of parents who go to prison for extended periods. The opportunities to address different and multiple gaps are pretty extraordinary.”

Client: Vidax Center

Agency: We Believers, New York
Chief Creative Officer: Gustavo Lauria
Executive Creative Director: Patricio Elfi, Leo Prat

Creative Director: Santiago Luna Lupo, Percy Bustos
Copywriter: Gustavo Lauria, Santiago Luna Lupo
Art Director: Patricio Elfi, Percy Bustos
Agency Producer: Rebeca Landeros
Head of Planning: Marco Vega
Head of Client Services: José Quijano
Agency Coordinator: Lupita Alvarez

Product Development: Clowder Tank
Head Of Development: Gonzalo Alonso
API: ClowderTank/TCPIP
UX: ClowderTank/TCPIP
AI: ClowderTank/TCPIP
Product Manager: Gilberto Ruiz/Rogelio Cárdenas
Platform Ops: Edgar Carrasco
Project Architect: Gonzalo Alonso

Production company: Nunchaku
Director: Nico Kasakoff
Director of Photography: Leandro Filloy
Executive producer: Leda Nasio, Julian Castro
1st AD: Adrian Castagna
1st Camera assistant: Alexander Cristofoli
2nd Camera Assistant: Támara Espinal
Art Director: Tom Criswell
Gaffer: José Jiménez
UPM: Carolina Nunez

Editor: Jorge Vallejo, Diego Panich
Executive producer: Denisse Zeigen
Post/Online: Vapor Post
Colorist: Rudel Reyes
Flame Artist/Online: John Holzman
Assistant Editor: Greg Gershengorn

Animation Studio: Gizmo
Executive Producer: Andrea Bacigalupo
Executive Producer: Emmanuel Verruno
Art Director: Javier Lourenco
Composer: Antoine Quairiat
Producer: Daniela Kisinovsky
Animator: Chris Granados
Shading & Lighting: Pablo Focaretta

Music and SFX: Personal Music, Alexis Estiz
Music Composer: Alberto Slezynger
Music Composer: Alexis Estiz

Sound Design: Luis Gomez

Executive Producer: Carolina Garcia

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@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.