Virtual Psychotherapy Works Better Than Live Docs

Teenagers would rather see a virtual shrink than a real one. So says Eric Wagner, a psychologist at Florida International University. Last month at a meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) he unveiled his plan to cyber-rehab teenage alcoholics. Wagner's been helping kids through conventional therapy for years, but he says teenagers are notoriously tough to reach because they don't like talking to adults. Apparently he thinks kids might open up more to virtual world avatars than flesh-and-blood therapists. And he has proof, based on the success of virtual counseling for HIV-positive patients.

Developed by HIV/AIDS researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the Positive Choice system helps reduce risky behavior among people living with HIV. Their method is sort of cheating (at least from a techie perspective) because it plays back video of a live-action 'doctor' actor to patients, but it's getting results. Here's what one of the study's authors had to say about their trial, which involved 917 participants at five hospitals around the San Francisco Bay area:

"Our most striking finding was that many of our intervention arm participants eliminated risky behaviors altogether—38 percent who reported unprotected sex at baseline reported no vaginal or anal sex without a condom after the intervention. Forty-four percent who had been using drugs at the first visit had stopped using all drugs at the conclusion of the study," said lead author Paul Gilbert, ScM, senior research associate at UCSF.

It'll still be a while for the technology to catch up (Wagner's system is in no danger of passing a Turing test). But people are getting more and more comfortable interacting with computers every day, so is it too soon to say we'll live to see a day when robots replace psychotherapists?

Source on Positive Choice: PLoS ONE, via EurekAlert

Source on Wagner study: original reporting for this post.

Photo: realtimearts.com