Robo-Therapists- Are the rest of us out of work?

Social work and mental health professionals have always relied on the fact that we need humans for our human interaction as a measure of job security. After all, how can technology be expected to know when to react or provide appropriate support? Well by a “well timed uh-huh” apparently. As a part of the USC’s Institute for Creative technology, psychologist and computer scientists are teaming up to provide your very own Tech therapist. A Robot Raconteur if you would. This bot, can measure responses and appropriately react to any given situation that the client puts out, even silence. The analysis is done with multiple measurements:

“A video camera tracks facial expressions of the person sitting opposite. A movement sensor – Microsoft Kinect- tracks the person’s gestures, fidgeting and other movements. A microphone records every inflection and tone in his or her voice… to read their body language.”

Originally this idea began at the Department Of Defense as a way to help flag service members for suicidal risks; a epidemic occurring with little relief. The belief is that the minute difference that can be picked up might be missed even by the most seasoned clinicians. It is attempting to analyze the hidden messages that occur in every interaction and compare it to large databases of research on issues. So if the robot is screening for depression, it can have a record of every movement, smile, and fidget that the client had and can respond appropriately. This simulation can take the data that is collected and compare it to averages of people with depression and flag potential risks.

Flag, not diagnose. The bot has great potential to help screen, but just as there are gray areas to every diagnosis or risk factor, so there will be here. The robot would be able to compile large amounts of data and formulate potential risks associated based on that data, but it will not be as simple as positive and negative diagnosis, regardless of what it is screening. Even within this boundary, there can be a large margin for difference as each person expresses emotions in slightly different ways. There will certainly be trends, and subtle, intrinsic signs that most of us are unable to read, but each one is not a guarantee.

To my fellow mental health professionals; don’t give your couches up just yet, there might be need of us yet. So… how does that make you feel?

To see a demonstration, check out NPR’s full story.