John Kirwan promotes digital humans to fight mental health 'pandemic'

A digital version of former All Black and mental health advocate John Kirwan could soon be asking Kiwis how they're feeling.

Kirwan has set up a new company called "Mentemia" to develop digital humans that can act as mental health coaches and counsellors.

And he has volunteered to be one of the first digital humans.

"I have been the face of mental health for the last 15 years but our stats are still going the wrong way, " he said.

"There is a real issue around resource, both human and financial for the growing problem of stress and anxiety."

Kirwan described mental health as a pandemic and compared the 2017 global number of suicides of 800,000 to the 120,000 people killed in war zones the same year.

"My dream is that it will be like having a digital human with the brains of five or six world class psychiatrists and psychologists," he said

Kirwan said a digital mental coach could not only help people on a daily basis, but if things escalated a human would also always be available at the end of the phone line.

The former All Black has partnered with New Zealand company FaceMe, which recently produced a digital sales assistant called Kiwi for Vodafone.

"It's really about expanding on emotional intelligence," says Chief Executive Danny Thomsett.

"To be able to use what we have developed over years to be able to read body language and to also express emotion and responsiveness what's happening to that individual."

Three New Zealand companies have come on board as foundation members for the trial.

Kirwan says he has interviewed 1000 staff members from The Warehouse, estate agency Barfoot and Thompson and trusts company Perpetual Guardian.

The first digital counsellor should be ready by mid-2019 and if Kirwan gets his way, it will be a younger version of him.

"There is some fear around it and I understand it," he said.

"I want to be the guinea pig to take a New Zealand approach and be a digital human so I can take the mickey out of it and have a bit of a laugh, have a bit of humour around it."