The Future of Computerized Therapy
There are some problems that continue to defeat computer science researchers. One example is natural language understanding. It is currently not possible for a computer to participate in an unconstrained, fluid and meaningful conversation with a person. This result alone places limitations on computerized therapy. Even optimistic experts agree that solutions to this, and other “hard AI” problems, are at least several decades away.
On the other hand, there are some existing and emerging technologies that hold great potential for tomorrow’s automated therapy systems. Perhaps the most obvious, and important, is the Internet. This future of Internet-supported therapy has been covered elsewhere , so in this article I’ll give some speculative ideas about other advances we may see in the years to come.
Simulated Therapist Interaction
Perhaps the most common objection to automated therapy is that it lacks the personal connection between the patient and therapist. This is a valid concern, and this intimate relationship cannot be replicated with existing technology. However, steps can be taken in the right direction.
Computerized treatments can involve a simulated relationship with a therapist . For example, a program may feature a virtual therapist who walks the user through each stage of the program. There are two general approaches: a fictional therapist or a real therapist. A fictional therapist may be an actor, animation, or computer-generated avatar. A real therapist is usually one of the clinicians who helped create the treatment program. My preference is for a real therapist, as this is at least moving toward a relationship with a real person. The relationship can be enhanced with personalized audio and video messages, interactive exercises with automated feedback and event-driven emails.
The field of computer graphics is advancing rapidly, and within the next few years it will be possible for computer-generated “talking heads” to be almost indistinguishable from real people. This technology is likely to be incorporated into future computerized therapy systems. However, don’t be misled by visual realism – the technology to make a computer behave and interact intelligently is progressing more slowly.
One of the primary advantages of computerized therapy over traditional self-help is the ability to adapt the content to the user’s needs. In the past few years, successful clinical trials have been conducted for a number of such programs, including ones targeted toward depression, anxiety disorders, alcohol misuse, quitting smoking, and panic [3-9].
Personalization can take several forms. As a concrete example, I’ll give a brief overview of how AI-Therapy’s social anxiety treatment program works. At the beginning, the user fills out several standardized questionnaires. The system uses these data to formulate a personalized anxiety model for the user, and devises a treatment plan accordingly. For example, the program assigns exposure exercises based on the user’s specific symptoms. Underlying the system is a database of over 8,000 pieces of individualized content derived from a detailed audit of decades of real-world clinical data .
My hope is that computerized therapy systems of the future will take personalization much further, making today’s systems appear primitive by comparison.