AI psychologists are ready now

December 01, 2016

Director of the Psychology Network, Professor Joachim Diederich, explores the artificially intelligent psychology services available anytime, everywhere.

AI psychologists

The Psychology Network has created one of the world’s first AI psychologists, an artificial ADHD coach called Amy. 

While communication is changing all around us, psychological practice has not fundamentally changed for more than a hundred years. Psychologists deliver services by talking to people in an office environment or out in the field.

While the nature of psychological assessment and therapy may have changed over the years, the formal setting has not: a professional (the psychologist) and a client generally talk one-on-one or in the presence of others.

However, with the arrival of artificial intelligence (AI) in the workplace, the delivery of psychological services is set to change dramatically. Mobile phone apps, for instance, can analyse speech and language to detect indicators of depression and provide instant feedback to both psychologists and clients.

AI psychologists available around the world, 24/7

Although online versions of cognitive-behaviour therapy have been available for more than a decade, what is emerging now are “AI psychologists” – programs that are empowered by vast knowledge bases on mental health and how to solve very human problems.

These programs talk to people in ways that are almost indistinguishable from the ways that human psychologists do. Importantly, they are available anytime, everywhere (on your mobile phone, for example) – and they cost as little as $2/hr. This is psychological expertise on tap, 24/7.

But can psychological therapy work without a shared human experience? Will it be possible for a client to form a bond that is assuring and goes beyond simply using a mobile app? 

I think so. By way of example, a few weeks ago I drove a rental car through a large European city – a place I was visiting for the first time. Given peak hour traffic, narrow streets and a lot of construction, the experience would have been enough to trigger high stress levels. However, I learned to trust the re-assuring voice of my navigation system and the whole experience was as stress-free as I could have hoped for.

Although this is not an example of an AI system, it illustrates the commonplace experience of a machine-generated voice inducing relaxation in a stressful context.

Can humans compete with AI psychologists?

The voices of AI psychologists are now for sale. It is difficult to see how human psychologists can compete with AI psychologists that offer cost-effective coaching and therapy around the clock to thousands of clients at the same time.

By way of example, Tess is a “psychological AI” developed by X2AI, Inc., a corporation based in Delaware. According to X2AI, the program “administers highly personalised psychotherapy, psycho-education, and health-related reminders, on-demand, when and where the mental health professional isn’t”.

Furthermore, the company states that “interaction with Tess is solely through conversation, exclusively via existing communication channels, such as SMS, Facebook Messenger, web browsers, and several other platforms.” And the current patient fee is $US1 per patient/month.

Meet Amy, AI ADHD coach

Amy is an artificial Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) coach developed by the Psychology Network Pty Ltd. Amy has extensive medical and psychological knowledge and the built-in capacity to acquire additional knowledge from mental health experts, which she goes on to apply in her coaching.

Amy’s primary mode of communication is conversation. However, she also provides videos, images and text to educate her users. During conversation, Amy analyses mood problems from the speech and language of its clients. Her knowledge bases are updated frequently to include the latest facts about mental health and ADHD, plus the clinical experience of practicing psychologists.

How does Amy work?

Let’s assume the user experiences challenges such as restlessness and concentration problems. The corresponding symptoms trigger a problem solving process conducted by Amy, the AI system.

The goal is obviously to reduce or eliminate these symptoms but in psychology, it is never that simple. We also want the user to be safe, we want to avoid relapses, and we generally support multiple goals including integration into a family or other social network, and a lifestyle that is healthy and productive.

Amy uses “heuristic search” to determine a path from the starting state (symptoms) to multiple goals states. The path – made up of intermediate states – consists of a selection of psychological methods that have proven useful, such as brain training and relaxation techniques.

All of this is textbook artificial intelligence. The first AI problem solvers were developed more than 50 years ago. What is new is the availability of vast knowledge bases such as SNOMED and YAGO, which can be used as background knowledge. In addition, AI systems can learn how to solve people’s personal problems from human psychologists.

What’s next for psychology?

Psychological practice, as we know it, is a thing of the past. The question is, how can professionals and organisations adjust?

There are still parts of psychological therapy that should not be automated, such as assessing the risk of self-harm. Furthermore, AI systems are hungry for knowledge and the best systems do not only include machine learning but human expertise as well.

There are many opportunities for practicing psychologists to contribute to the development of specialised AI psychologists.

Dr Joachim Diederich

Director, Psychology Network Pty Ltd

Honorary Professorial Fellow, Centre for Mental Health, University of Melbourne

Honorary Professor, School of Information Technology and Electrical Engineering, University of Queensland

Read next: Managing Director of Information Gateways, Simon Maxwell, paints a picture of what future living will look like in the era of autonomous vehicles. 

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