World Health Organization's virtual health worker designed by New Zealanders

Florence, an AI resource, is designed to help smokers quit and combat COVID-19.
Florence, an AI resource, is designed to help smokers quit and combat COVID-19. Photo credit: World Health Organization screenshot

The World Health Organization's first virtual health worker has been designed by New Zealanders.

The WHO launched Florence as a "trusted source of information" designed to help the world's 1.3 billion tobacco users quit. It uses artificial intelligence to dispel myths on both COVID-19 and smoking.

The organisation says quitting smoking is more important than ever as evidence reveals that smokers are more vulnerable than non-smokers to developing a severe case of COVID-19.

The technology was developed by San Francisco and New Zealand-based company Soul Machines, which says the way it is designed means every interaction is unique.

"We would call Florence a digital person," Greg Cross, co-founder of Soul Machines, told Morning Report.

"She's a CGI creation just as we see in the movies, but what's unique about Florence and other digital people like her is she is ... autonomously animated by a digital brain. You're having a face-to-face interaction with a digital person.

"One of the things we know from our day-to-day lives is we learn to build relationships, we learn to build trust, with face to face interactions.

"Florence and digital people go way beyond what chatbots and voice assistants can do in terms of emotional connection and emotional engagement with us."

"The objective here is not to fool people that they're talking to a real person, the objective here is to create a face-to-face interaction."

The 'digital brain' allows Florence to interact and respond in real time, he said, such as recognising a smile and smiling back.

In many cases humans actually prefer to speak to a digital person, he said.

"If you failed to give up smoking 10 times, you're probably going to be reluctant to talk to anybody about giving up smoking again because there is always that of human judgement.

"When you're talking to a digital person there is no judgement."

The technology also allows the digital health worker to speak to as many people who want to at any one point in time, he said. "You're not going to sit in a queue for half an hour waiting for somebody to pick up the phone and answer your question."