Saving Progress

Unlike a video game there’s no pause or save button in life. So I have found that I’ve severely neglected my blog as it was yet another thing on the to-do list during a global pandemic. It isn’t easy as a PhD student. It’s less so when the world seems to be falling apart while you’re trying to just get a step further along. And so what does that mean? We take a step back, re-evaluate, re-structure, and then proceed. No day but today.

I’ve recently become interested in affective computing and emotional AI. While Human-Computer Interaction or HCI has been around for a while, we’re seeing a surge in research in areas now that technology is catching up to the hype. Maybe during a constant cycle of isolation this is the best time to get into this too, as it means we’ll create better virtual worlds to escape to. Either way, I’m excited again about my work, and what that might mean for the next year.

Coincidentally I also just finished Ready Player 2, the sequel that formed my initial proposal idea, what seems like a decade ago. Though it failed to live up to the first book, as so many do, it was a timely reminder of how much fun I have in this area of research. Games, virtual reality, and its impact on individuals and society is an exciting field with so much potential beyond games. So what if the book didn’t meet expectations, it was a pleasant night’s entertainment that seemed to say “remember who you are,” albeit without James Earl Jones in the clouds.

So we’ll say that while I’ve completed many levels, I didn’t quite beat the boss- I just didn’t have enough in my inventory for that one. Instead, this new game seems designed with me in mind.

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.