On the couch? Your therapist may soon be replaced by a robopsychiatrist

Ganesh Chakravarthi June 21, 2017 4 min

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Ellie, an AI therapist who thrives deep in the hearts of University of Southern California’s (USC) computers, can treat people with depression and veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, she has been ranked higher than human therapists in eliciting personal information from patients. Born out of DARPA’s funding, Ellie was designed as part of a virtual reality (VR) programme named SimSensei.

Ellie is still in the research stage, but USC researchers say her reach will be greatly expanded in the future. Ellie will soon interview cancer patients about the difficulties they face with their illnesses and separately consult veterans about their traumas. Future plans include implementing Ellie on laptops, expanding its reach and comfort significantly.

Ellie, an AI therapist, can treat people with depression and veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. She has been ranked higher than human therapists in eliciting personal information from patients

Artificial intelligence (AI) is creating inroads in the healthcare sector in unprecedented ways. A tool to leverage in data analyses and decision making, AI is now slowly gaining insight into people’s behaviour, their emotional needs and their personal motivations.

Also read: India has 3,800 psychiatrists for 1.2bn people. Can tech step in to manage mental health?

These advances in AI are fostering the emerging trend of robopsychiatry, which acts as the first step in diagnoses, can make mental health solutions more accessible to people.

AI-powered therapy systems will be highly personalised, with detailed models of people’s individual behaviour. These, coupled with vast databases of clinical knowledge, can recommend highly intuitive solutions. This can be instrumental in changing the traditional healthcare’s ‘one-size-fits-all’ model, wherein artificial intelligence can analyse data to create customisable treatment options.

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Robopsychiatry, which acts as the first step in diagnoses, can make mental health solutions more accessible to people

The success of mental health treatment often rests on a strong therapeautic bond between the doctor and the patient. While diagnoses and corrective measures can be provided by real psychiatrists, AI bots can essentially act as the preliminary step in gathering information.

Take Textpert, a platform that was originally designed as a Q&A about relationships, but is now in the process of building a natural language processing (NLP) layer to analyse an array of user responses, their strength and validity, and to connect users on the Q&A platform appropriately.

While diagnoses and corrective measures can be provided by real psychiatrists, AI bots can essentially act as the preliminary step in gathering information

Then there’s Woebot. A Stanford University Department of Psychiatry’s creation, Woebot is the latest invention in a slew of personalised healthcare apps which follows the popular business axiom of going where the audience is. The motivation behind this move, in the words of its creator Dr Alison Darcy, was: “To meet people where they’re at, just like the number-one rule of product development (is) go where your audience is.”

Also read: Digital initiatives are helping improve rural India’s mental health

Woebot’s prototype was built within Facebook messenger, a platform where millions of people converse on a daily basis. Woebot’s casual conversational style is designed to put users at ease, and since the chats happen in private, it is an excellent way for people to converse without inhibitions.

This is especially useful, for despite several advancements in mental health and medicine, there is a certain stigma attached to it. Studies point out that several doctors themselves don’t take mental health as seriously as they should. As a result, even patients suffering from it choose to steer clear of seeking help, lest they be tainted with a mental illness tag for the rest of their lives.

People are less likely to hold back if they know that they are conversing with a robot, which has perfect recall, is available at any point of the day and night, and can respond with the same enthusiasm without effort

Technology platforms like Woebot can counter this trend. People are less likely to hold back if they know that they are conversing with a robot, which has perfect recall, is available at any point of the day and night, and can respond with the same enthusiasm without effort.

With AI tools making inroads from the gigantic smartphone user base, it might be a preliminary initiative towards sustainable mental healthcare which is more affordable.

Artificial intelligence is slowly gaining traction in healthcare. The role that artificial intelligence plays in data analysis is unparalleled. Instead of viewing artificial intelligence as a threat to healthcare profession, it is important to see them as a bridging mechanism for the schism between patients and psychologists.

Also read: Telemedicine needs a shot in the arm — a consumer experience that’s 10x better


               

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