Can robots help treat mental illness?

Robots that can help our mental health
Can robots help improve mental health to a greater extent than humans?

Would you like to communicate with a robot? And with a robot psychologist? A global study by a tech company, Oracle and a HR consultancy firm Workforce intelligence found that 82% of people surveyed in 11 countries believe robots are better at coping with psychological problems than humans. However, according to researchers, such communication has significant disadvantages, since there are important human qualities that modern technologies cannot reproduce. However, with the development of artificial intelligence (AI) systems, robots have turned from a pipe dream of the distant future into reality and even got jobs. So, can robots replace psychotherapists in the near future?

Table of contents – Will Robots Replace Psychologists?

Mental health and robots

2020 was not an easy year for all of us. According to the results of several scientific studies, the Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of people around the world. Oracle and Workforce study also shows that the pandemic has exacerbated work-related stress, affecting the mental health of 78% of the global workforce. Previous studies have also pointed out an increase in mental health problems, especially among young people, which has been linked to social media.

Given the shortage of mental health professionals and social workers in many countries, some experts believe that the use of robots can help clinics to diagnose disorders, giving psychiatrists and psychologists more time to treat diagnosed patients.

Recently, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a neural network model that can detect depression in speech patterns in recorded text and audio conversation. In the future, the model may be added to mobile applications that track the user’s text and voice for mental health problems. This technology can be especially useful for people who cannot go to a psychiatric clinic for a diagnosis due to distance, cost, or even inconvenience.

Another equally interesting study by the Australian Center for Robotic Vision and Queensland University of Technology has shown that social robots have tremendous potential to help people cope with depression, drug and alcohol addiction, as well as eating disorders.

Robots can also pave the way for new therapies, opportunities to engage hard-to-reach populations and improve patient response, at least according to researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). In the course of the work, the researchers studied the ethical implications of communicating with a robot psychologist and found that robots are more prone to manipulating people than other people. This work, however, has a number of limitations.

Robots, empathy and other problems

And yet, a number of problems may arise during communication between humans and robots. The problem of empathy is especially highlighted – a conscious empathy for the emotional state of another person. To date, there is not a single program that would allow a machine to empathize with human emotions. And this is the most important component of psychotherapy for a huge number of people.

The researchers note that robots or artificial intelligence systems help to some extent, but when it comes to more complex issues, such as deep-rooted family problems or complex conflicts between close friends. In other words, AI today cannot meet all of our needs. Robots are programmed to say certain things, but they won’t be able to fully understand you and your feelings.

Another often overlooked problem in communication between humans and robots is the so-called uncanny valley hypothesis. The hypothesis was first formulated by the Japanese robotics scientist Masahiro Mori. It implies that when a robot looks and moves almost like a human being, it causes a response of disconcert and antagonism. This effect may be very detrimental in the context of psychotherapy since the establishment of affinity and trust between a patient and a psychologist is paramount for the success of the treatment.


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