Can We Have Therapeutic Conversations with Computers?

There are a plethora of problems we encounter that require audible communication. And when there isn’t someone around we trust to confide in, digital therapy and the computer therapist may soon be there to help.

The Computer Therapist

My most therapeutic conversations have been with my mom and my friend Mayo. In this, I realize how lucky I am to have those types of relationships where I can discuss any and all problems. Everyone isn’t this blessed.

Which is why turning our devices into a computer therapist doesn’t seem too far off.

Essentially, a computer therapist is software that analyzes a person’s speech or written text and uses Natural Language Processing to communicate with the person. The computer therapist is not only a sounding board but a voice of reason.

One computer therapist is Replika, which is a one-of-a-kind chatbot that excels at listening. It knows how to spark conversation and more importantly get people to open up – just like a therapist.

There’s a negative stigma surrounding therapy that it’s only for the people with really serious mental issues. But, that’s just not the case.

Instead, there’s a Golden Moment when therapy becomes therapeutic. When conversation allows us to reveal our insecurities and come to terms with them – realizing our faults and working toward lessening them. That’s when therapy is for everyone.

Replika is showing early signs of this Golden Moment. And if the computer therapist is the wave of the future, where we prefer hearing the words of wisdom from through our phones, then Replika has a distinct leg up on this service.

But, we must also realize that Replika operates completely via text message. Which means there’s a high level of polish involved. We think before we text because we have time to. It’s not real-time.

So, does this blur the lines between intention and reality? Can digital therapy be effective if it’s conducted through texts?

Siri, The Voice of Reason?

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.”

For Siri to give good advice, though, it needs to better understand context.

Context is our ability to use external cues to better interpret others. For example, if I were drinking a coffee in a mug in the breakroom, and asked, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee?” You’d realize I was being funny – asking if I could pour you a cup from the machine.

Siri would tell you where the closest Starbucks was.

Imagine this contextual issue in a therapy session where the topic was human existence – a conversation that thrives on context.

I’ve had a few existential conversations with my friend Ryan. We usually ease our fears by discussing the impact we’d like to have on the world. We talk about our duty while we’re alive to do everything in our power to impact our mission.

But, in discussing existential fears with my friend Z, the context changes. Her “north star” is different. We discuss finding beauty in the calmness of everyday life. Noticing small wins on a daily basis.

For Siri to transform from the digital assistant in millions of pockets to the computer therapist with a voice of reason, it needs to develop better contextual conversation to learn about an individual’s needs.

For now, it may be best to leave our delicate human psyche to the experts.

Tools for Digital Therapy

Instead of thinking about replacing therapists, perhaps it’s better to enable them to do their job even better with technology.

For instance, creating virtual spaces to meet with patients through video applications and even Virtual Reality would enable people who may be limited by distance to visit their counselor more easily.

On a deeper level, researchers are experimenting with Augmented Reality Exposure Therapy to help people cope with their fears. Essentially, their AR application places someone in a room with their fear. It’s safer than traditional immersion therapies where the fear is actually present (i.e. a snake is placed on your lap) since the AR application is just a virtual representation.

Another example of digital therapy comes from Amy Green who created a video game to help people cope with grief, called The Dragon, Cancer. It’s based on her family’s experience when their son, Joel, was given news of terminal cancer. Players are transformed into a witness of Joel’s life, exploring an emotional landscape, clicking to discover more of what the family felt and experienced.

It’s a hard game to play since it’s a game that you can’t win. But, it’s so much more. As Amy says, “People have to prepare themselves to invest emotionally in a story that they know will break their hearts. But when our hearts break, they heal a little differently.”

There will always be an abundance of issues we face individually that can be assuaged with the help of a therapist, counselor, or an open listener. Nonetheless, as I’ve talked about in the past, one of the main areas of future job growth is in the interpersonal care spaces.

Regardless of hiring a professional or talking to a friend, everyone has the ability to practice therapy daily.

Therapeutic Rituals

When things get crappy, we have to find ways to calm ourselves. For many of us, our therapeutic ritual lies in technology: listening to music, calling up a friend, or turning on the TV. And while these are great distractions, they aren’t dependable under all circumstances.

I urge everyone to develop a therapeutic ritual they can do anytime, anywhere.

Maybe you rub your thumb and index finger ever so slightly so that you can feel the grooves of your fingerprint. Perhaps bring a small pebble with you everywhere and caress its smoothness. How about just going for a walk and looking around?

Personally, I flip my challenge coin to myself whenever I’m stressed, sad, bored, or even excited. The action is therapeutic, helping to centers my emotions.

The Hulk merely needed to hear the phrase “Sun’s getting real low” accompanied by some hand gestures to calm himself and return to being Bruce Banner. If the Hulk can do it, so can you.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on digital therapy and maybe some of your therapeutic rituals. Thanks for tuning into this week’s Quick Theories!

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