Will robots, VR applications and bots be able to replace a psychotherapist?

About 500 million people in the world need psychological help, 96% do not go to a qualified specialist for various reasons (expensive, embarrassing, scary). At the same time, the development of digital capabilities and services has made significant adjustments to traditional approaches to psychotherapy and made services available to the general public. Marina Afonina, Vice-Rector for Educational Activities at the Senezh Management Workshop, told about new technologies in the industry, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and side effects of their application.

How technologies change classical approaches in psychotherapy

A couple of years ago it was possible to get the help of a psychotherapist only in person. Today, a specialist can access a large number of resources for remote work, in addition to personal meetings, there are online consultations. And this trend was formed long before the pandemic and caused by the spread of coronavirus infection bans on face-to-face meetings. And since there is no need to hold regular face-to-face meetings with clients, there is no need to rent a room for an office or daily stay in a medical center. This saves time and money for both parties.

The development of technology offers clients flexible terms of cooperation: the cost of services decreases without loss of quality, and package offers appear. For example, not only Zoom or Skype consultation hours are included in the payment, but also monthly support in messengers. I know several examples when psychotherapists worked with clients through WhatsApp. This method is very convenient: if a person feels bad, he can write a message during the day and get qualified help.

Now there are special mobile applications for smartphones, which are tools for self-knowledge, diagnosis, the formation of a positive mood and fight with some mental disorders. For example, the electronic assistant Woebot since the summer of this year helps users to cope with everyday stress and problems – loneliness, grief, prostration – through the function of intelligent tracking of mood. According to the developers, Woebot is more like a friend than an application. Therefore, customers who are experiencing a lack of communication, such an assistant will be very useful. The effect of chat-bot communication has been repeatedly proved by the Stanford University staff: during the four weeks of the research, the subjects were found to have reduced anxiety (38%) and depression (32%).

Today there are many mobile resources that allow monitoring the emotional state during the day. One of them is MoodKit – an application based on the methods of cognitive behavioral therapy. The tools integrated into the program help a person to assess and improve their mood, to identify and change unhealthy thinking. Similar principles are embedded in the services of Moodnotes, MoodTools, Pacifica and Stress & Anxiety Companion. There are applications that offer dozens of meditations to relax after a day of work and find the mental balance. For example, Stop, Breathe & Think, Calm or Headspace.

Psychotherapist robots: can AI replace a specialist?

Most psychotherapists are wary of new technologies. In my opinion, there is no need to worry. Machines can help, but they can’t replace a specialist in this field. Although, there have been some attempts already. In 2017, the Japanese company NTT Resonant developed the artificial intelligence system Oshi-el, which still works as an online psychologist, listening to people and giving them valuable advice. Oshi-el is constantly learning, so its advice is not a template, but based on the experience gained.

Scientists from the University of Southern California also conduct experiments to conduct initial sessions of psychotherapy without the participation of specialists. Their virtual robots are capable of conducting initial examinations of patients through voice communication. The program competently builds the process of communication by reading a person’s emotions and correcting the conversation depending on the received reaction.

Today, a lot can be solved with smart devices. For example, to help the client in case of depression. But if he asked for psychological help in connection with the loss of a relative, then there is no need to contact a “person – person”. In such cases, it is necessary to enter the emotional state, empathy from a specialist, tactile interaction (take a person by the hand, hug). Robots can’t do it yet.

Technology, first of all, should be seen as helping yourself. In most cases, a bot is enough for conscious clients to solve their problems. Here – in the implementation of technologies – there is another positive thing, if I may say so. In psychotherapy, there is a “side story”, when a person gets attached to a specialist, and then can’t take a step without his recommendations, actually shifts the responsibility for decisions to the specialist. In this sense, it is very good when electronic assistants take over the diagnosis and daily reminders.

VR-therapy – a new approach to the treatment of mental disorders.

In psychotherapy, a large role is given to working with the imagination in a particular location where the client has anxiety, fear or panic. Previously, the specialist asked the person to imagine some unpleasant situation that has happened before. Now it is possible to be in the right place without leaving the room – the circumstances are modeled with the help of VR glasses. The technologies of building new positive pictures of the world by means of virtual reality are used during the sessions or in between sessions.

The VR industry is rapidly gaining momentum. Spanish company Psious has made a great contribution to its development. Its employees have developed a virtual platform Psious VR Therapy specially for psychotherapists with training programs that include visualization of different phobias. Another useful product is Psious Toolsuite, an application that offers hyper-realistic virtual environments for treating many disorders.

It is noteworthy that the platform allows psychotherapists to monitor in real time what the client sees on his smartphone, and change the course of treatment according to his needs.

In the West, VR glasses are used not only in the work with patients, but also in training future psychotherapists. It is believed that a specialist should undergo not only the classics, but also personal psychotherapy, including (work hours). Stanford has such a practice.

Even from the use of technology, there are side effects

The average conscious client of a psychotherapist is a person at the age of 35+, who grew up on the movies “Terminator”. He remembers very well from the plot of the legendary movie epic what will happen if we let a lot of cars into our lives, and is afraid of it.

Like most things, innovative technology should be used dosed. Otherwise, there is a risk of side effects. For example, depressive disorders from communication with artificial intelligence or violation of privacy, personal space. We live in a frenzied rhythm, the rate of digitization increases every year. Going into digital space and immersion in gadgets can also cause people to stop meeting in person and communicating, learn to listen and understand each other.

What does psychotherapy have in store for the next decade?

In my opinion, the future of the industry is in AI and virtual reality technologies. The demand for AR/VR-devices is steadily growing. Goldman Sachs analysts predict that their use in medical services, including psychiatry, will increase to $6.1 billion by 2025. The popularity of VR-devices is due to the fact that they allow you to show in a secure environment what you usually need to connect your imagination.

To give you an example: psychotherapy often involves prescribing different scenarios. Thanks to these exercises, the brain gets the idea that there are several ways out of any difficult situation and in each case, a certain plan of action. This technique helps the client to build a new reality for himself, and in some cases – to find a new meaning of life. It is possible that in the near future specialists will model situations with the help of VR glasses with artificial intelligence. At first, the smart device will listen to the person, diagnose him, and then, after analyzing the obtained data, will offer him suitable scenarios.

As you can see, the progress does not stand still. It affects all areas of our life activities and penetrates even such conservative industries as psychotherapy. But technologies should not cause mistrust and fear, because they are not meant to replace a person, but to help him.