Sunday, 21 July 2013

Ellie the virtual therapist

A virtual 'robot' therapist is being developed in the U.S. by psychologist Albert "Skip" Rizzo and computer scientist Louis-Philippe Morency. Named Ellie, 'she' is an on-screen image from LA designed to ask questions of people in need of help, and to react just like a human - even down to the 'uh-huh's.

Talking to a virtual human about your troubles might seem strange, but her makers believe she could revolutionize the way mental health is practiced. So what makes her so special? As Ellie gently probes you for information, every answer you give is watched and studied in minute detail by a simple gaming sensor and a webcam. Your body language and tone of voice is recorded and analyzed by the computer system, which then tells Ellie how to best interact with you. 

As reported on the NPR website: "We have recorded more than 200 of these uh-huhs," Morency says, "and these are so powerful. Because a simple 'uh-huh' and a silence — if they are done the right way — can be extremely powerful. So we spent a lot of time on these little details."
What computers [like Ellie] offer is the ability to look at massive amounts of data and begin to look at patterns, and that, I think, far outstrips the mere mortal brain

Skip Rizzo

Its developers believe Ellie will be useful when treating people who find it difficult to open up. As the NPR reports:
"Ellie was originally commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense. [...] Soldiers don't always like to confess that they're having problems, but maybe their bodies would say what their words wouldn't."
"Skip" Rizzo thinks that the virtual could do better than the human, eventually. "What computers [like Ellie] offer is the ability to look at massive amounts of data and begin to look at patterns, and that, I think, far outstrips the mere mortal brain," he says.
What do you think? Would you rather have a brilliant robot therapist than a flawed human?