You have probably heard of ELIZA at one time or another. In the mid-1960s, Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed a computer program to simulate a Rogerian psychotherapist. ELIZA, as the program was called, asked open-ended questions to encourage the user to discuss his or her emotions.
Weizenbaum was surprised to see users talk intimately about their problems. In fact, when the experiment was over, some subjects refused to believe they were not exchanging messages with a real, live therapist.
It has been almost 50 years since ELIZA was originally developed. When you consider all of the dazzling technological achievements of the past five decades, you might wonder “if such a simple program worked so well in the 1960s, just imagine the artificial therapist of today!” While it’s true there have been advances, they have not been in the ways early pioneers expected. In particular, we have not seen a steady march from ELIZA to a humanoid therapist with a programmed theory of mind and algorithms for understanding and empathy.
In this article I’ll introduce computerized therapy and explain why, despite a conspicuous absence of insightful robots, it is more important than ever.
What Is Computerized Therapy?
It is worthwhile taking a moment to define “computerized therapy.” It is separate from the closely related field of online mental health interventions. Live therapy is traditionally conducted through face-to-face sessions between a patient and a therapist. Today it is possible for psychotherapy to take place over the Internet via emails or videoconferencing. This is commonly known as online therapy or e-Therapy. Similarly, self-help treatments were initially available through books, CDs, DVDs, etc., but can now be made available as web-based programs.
While Internet-supported interventions necessarily involve the use of computers, the term “computerized therapy” places the emphasis on a different point: a computer is playing more than a passive role in delivering the clinical content. In other words, the computer is more than just a means of delivery, and may or may not be connected to the Internet.
The idea of a computer performing therapy is not nearly as radical as it may sound. Patients are not engaged in deep conversation with robots. From a technical perspective, a basic computerized therapy system is easy to understand.
The following thought experiment is helpful for explaining, and more importantly demystifying, how some systems work. Did you read the Choose Your Own Adventure book series when you were a kid? Basically, the idea is that the reader makes decisions at key points and these choices affect how the story unfolds.