Is robot therapy the future?

Seek help for a mental health issue today and you may find yourself referred to an online app or talking to a robot therapist. Is this welcome democratisation of an expensive resource – or the ‘Uberisation of therapy’?

She’s sitting on a purple armchair, nodding slowly as she talks. “When was the last time you felt really happy?” Her voice is low and measured, with the gently broken glottal quality that one might expect of a computer simulation, her ethnicity undefined, her cardigan beige. Ellie, an artificial intelligence therapist created with funding from the US government agency responsible for the development of military technologies, is capable of reading 60 non-verbal cues a second. She wears a watch and a look of blank empathy. On the split screen, her patient repeats her question. “Hmm, when was the last time I felt really happy?” He’s a young white man who appears to find the interaction unremarkable, which I find remarkable. She detects his “low gaze attention” as he answers, and nods, and prods, and mirrors his facial expressions. And I realise I am nodding, too.

The future of therapy arrived faster than planned. Over the past decade the appearance of mental health care has radically changed, evolving from soft conversations held in small rooms, to encompass teletherapy (at a distance), text-based therapy (through messaging apps), chatbots that perform cognitive behavioural therapy, online platforms that match you to a therapist and, soon, AI therapy with a “non-human” therapist like Ellie. In 2020 the pandemic brought about a mental health crisis and these online services were pushed blinking into the light. As Covid gnawed its way through communities, record numbers of children and adults sought NHS help for problems such as anxiety and depression, and private online therapy platforms, such as BetterHelp, saw a spike in users. The future was here, for around £60 a week.

The point is to game the numbers: we saw X people, they were happier

Therapy is based on trust, and tech is rarely applauded for that

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Category: Mental Health