Robot Therapy: Can a Software Program Treat Depression?

Although traditional talk-therapy sessions are conducted face-to-face, advances in smartphone technology and video-calling have significantly altered the age old “therapy couch” model and brought talk therapy into the lives of people who aren’t able to visit a therapist regularly. Further advances in artificial intelligence may mean that someday patients might not need a therapist at all – just a computer program.


Image: The Doctor Is In Your Pocket by Juhan Sonin /CC by 2.0

Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have developed and tested a computer program that directly interacts with patients, in between their regular therapy sessions, that helps to reinforce outcomes from the group therapy and teach techniques to manage stress. Advances in conversational artificial intelligence have enabled computer scientists to develop software programs that interact with patients, either through voice or text, in such a natural way that some patients’ brains respond to these programs the same way they would when talking to a human. These programs are known as “conversational agents,” and they have been particularly successful at psychological evaluations, as studies have shown that patients may be more likely to give open and honest responses when they believe they are speaking to a computer program rather than a human. The researchers at Northeastern found that, when combined with group therapy visits, patients who used the conversational agent along with their group sessions had significantly better outcomes at 9 and 21 weeks.

Telephone help lines, such as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, have provided a safe space to those in need for decades. Other programs, such as 7 Cups of Tea, offer support in online forums or by text. While there is no denying the benefits of being able to reach out to another human, artificially intelligent “conversational agents” can help fill the gaps by offering on-demand services, particularly in rural areas where providers may be scarce, or other areas where patients may not be able to afford mental health coverage.

Featured image: Artificial Intelligence by Many Wonderful Artists

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Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.