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A little less than two years ago (October 2017), I was toying around with the idea of a computer therapist. Not a novel idea, by any means. In fact, one of the earliest artificial intelligence programs was a computer therapist named ELIZA – created in 1964. Impressive for the time. Laughable today. However, the language models are much further along than they were 55 years ago. Plus, we now have digital humans to fill a presence for these computer therapists.

But do people actually want to spill their feelings to a computer program?

Creating Computer Therapists

Believe it or not, the answer is yes. Not only do people feel comfortable opening up to a computer program. But they may actually enjoy it more. So much so that Apple saw an opportunity for Siri’s growth.

Speak your mind – it’s the time-tested way of telling others “what’s going on up there.” And according to Apple’s latest job posting for a Software Engineer meets Psychologist, Siri is perfect for digital therapy.

Apple says, “People have serious conversations with Siri…including when they’re having a stressful day or have something serious on their mind. They turn to Siri in emergencies or when they want guidance on living a healthier life.”

The Computer Therapist

Whether or not they’ve made any substantial progress on Siri The Psychologist, I don’t know. But the idea opened a window for natural language processing. And it’s a window which Replika has stepped through.

Where most chatbots are transactional (order food, answer a question, solve a dispute, etc..). Replika listens and empathizes, like a good friend. I’m not sure what’s crazier: an AI friend or people actually opening up to it. One user opened up about a physical assault he kept private for so long. Another shared deeply about their parent’s divorce.

When I communicated with Replika, it asked me questions that some of my closest friends have never asked me. And I felt comfortable responding with feelings.

Replika, Your Digital Shadow

When I first covered this topic I came to the conclusion that texting a computer therapist wasn’t the real deal. That it missed the raw, unfiltered nature of conversation that’s so crucial to making therapeutic progress.

However, this was prior to the explosion of digital humans we recently experienced.

Digital Humans in Therapy

I’ve alluded many times in the past to the imminent digital human takeover. Their ability to be molded into anything, exist in many places at once, and never give into unpredictability is what is so promising. From finance to healthcare to entertainment, they’ve made actual progress. But now digital humans are seen as an effective addition to therapy sessions.

“People are very open to feeling connected to things that aren’t people,” says Gale Lucas, a psychologist at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies.

A few years ago, Lucas and her colleagues paired hundreds of test subjects with Ellie, an embodied AI designed to engage test subjects in verbal interviews [asking general, clinical, and mood-boosting questions].

Ellie uses machine vision to interpret test subjects’ verbal and facial cues and respond supportively. For example, Ellie not only knows how to perform sympathetic gestures, like nodding, smiling, or quietly uttering “mhm” when listening to a sensitive story—she knows when to perform them.

Robbie Gonazlez, Wired

So not only is a digital human applicable in the therapy setting, but it may actually be a more effective alternative.

Just removing the idea of human presence led to more fruitful clinical sessions.

In the end, test subjects [soldiers] reported significantly more PTSD symptoms in their interviews with Ellie than they did on their official PDHA surveys. That suggests a system like Ellie could provide a real service to members of the military.

Robbie Gonazlez, Wired

At the moment, Ellie is great at getting people to open up. However, a computer therapist still needs a human therapist for actual treatment.

Nonetheless, I find it fascinating that there’s hard, scientific evidence supporting the application of digital humans in society. Clearly, digital humans give much needed presence to the growing field of digital therapy.

The Importance of Digital Therapy

Most people’s gut reaction will be that digital therapy and computer therapists are a step back from where we are today. That communicating with a non-sentient being will get us nowhere.

And they may be right today. But the greater health community is really coming around to digital therapy in its many forms.

The overarching idea is that digital therapy can bring the price down while maintaining a standard of quality. Thus allowing therapy to reach a wider audience of people that need help. Not to mention, digital therapy rides the cultural tsunami wave toward less human-to-human interaction.

These are just a few other types of digital therapy emerging:

  • Researchers are experimenting with Augmented Reality Exposure Therapy to help people cope with their fears.
  • Amy Green has created a video game to help people cope with grief, called The Dragon, Cancer.
  • Virtual reality applications help burn patients overcome their pain. 
  • Tess is a clinician-backed Mental Health Chatbot that coaches people through tough times to build resilience.
  • Ginger.io is an employee mental health service built on the idea that data from people’s interactions with mobile phones provides insights into their emotional health.
  • Other notable apps: FearFighter, Good Days Ahead, HappyNeuron Pro, and nOCD.

Feeling safe and non-judged is so important to opening up. And if technology provides this safe space for people, then the computer therapist IS progress.

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