An example of a robot counseling a human took place in March 2016, when Rakan Ghebar, a 27-year-old Syrian refugee, had a counseling session with ‘Karim’, a psychotherapy chatbot. The chatbot was designed by an artificial intelligence start-up in Silicon Valley, known as X2AI.
The (1) New Yorker describes the story, in which Karim told Ghebar, who suffers from persistent nervous anxiety, to always focus on the present. After fleeing Syria, Ghebar lives in Lebanon, where he is a vice principle of a school for children displaced from Syria. Rather than worrying about the past and the future, Ghebar should channel his energy into whatever he is doing and focus only on the present, advised the chatbot.
Robot Counselors Are Here
X2AI was founded by two young immigrant computer programmers – Eugene Bann and Michiel Rauws. The pair met in a ‘hacker house’ in San Francisco, a co-living space for aspiring IT entrepreneurs. Both Bann and Rauws had an interest in mental health and aspired to improve services for mental health.
Rauws suffered mental health problems himself, and noticed when he visited a counselor, the conversations were typically formulaic and limited to a set number of paths and templates. The fact that such conversations were formulaic suggested that counseling had the potential to be automated.
Computer scientist Bann had already begun writing algorithms based on emotional recognition and subsequently teamed up with Ruaws to form X2AI. X2AI is centered on an ethos to provide, as its (2) website states:
“Affordable, on-demand, and quality mental healthcare for everyone using psychological artificial intelligence.”
As the New Yorker reports, a study by the Eastern Mediterranean Public Health Network, which was funded by the WHO and the International Medical Corps, had showed that almost half of Syrian refugees living in a refugee camp in Jordan, reported feelings of anxiety and the inability to function properly due to intense anxiety and feelings of hopelessness.
Do Robot Counselors Work?
Bann and Ruaws wanted to test the impact their psychotherapy chatbot had on Syrian refugees. Without the need for a salary, flights, accommodation, food or protection, such psychotherapy chatbots have clear advantages over human counselors.
Bann and Rauws traveled with Karim to several sites in Beirut, testing the chatbot on approximately 60 Syrian refugees living there.
Whilst many of the participants expressed scepticism towards be analysed by a robot, it was found that many regarded the AI as liberating, as it meant the social stigma associated with discussions about mental health and anxiety could be avoided.
Ghebar, who used Karim to counsel his students in Beirut, found that his students, many of which suffered the same mental health problems as himself, were more likely to listen to the chatbot rather than listening to Ghebar’s advice.
Karim is just one of a number of counseling robots designed by X2AI. ‘Emma’ is another, who speaks Dutch and is programmed to counsel people suffering from mild anxiety and fear. ‘Tess’ is another chatbot who performs cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing in the English language. The AI start-up is in the process of developing other bots designed to help people affected by HIV in Nigeria and by gang violence in Brazil.
In March 2016, Top Secret Writers reported how artificial intelligence may be amazing one day, but AI reality is still a world away. But with the likes of X2AI developing robots programmed to provide impactful mental health advice in an affordable and accessible way, effective artificial intelligence ingenuity may have finally arrived.