The increasing prevalence of mental health disorders in adults has resulted in a growing demand for mental health services, and a dwindling supply of qualified professionals prepared to meet that demand. In America, 20% of adults will experience a mental health disorder in their lifetime, and 60% of those adults will go untreatedTo address this problem, mental health professionals have to get creative. Technology touches countless aspects of our physical health care, from activity trackers and health monitors built into our smartphones, to the increasing virtualization of medical data from healthcare providers. Why not transition and transform our mental health care in the same way?

AI Counseling Apps

Popular mobile apps like TalkSpace, BetterHelp and Joyable, directly connect users to licensed therapists through their platforms. Woebot, a mobile therapist-chatbot, created by Stanford AI experts and clinical psychologists who specialize in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), takes this idea a step further.

Woebot treats users like patients, guiding them through ask-and-response behavioral therapy techniques while using Artificial Intelligence to provide workable solutions to the users’ stated problems. Woebot listens to you the way a therapist would, and uses its knowledge of CBT and its therapeutic capabilities to help you address what your problems. Woebot represents one of the first widely available attempts to conduct therapy via machine learning algorithms and mobile devices, and it’s easy to see the potential for a shift in the counseling and therapy paradigm. Sessions with Woebot don’t need to be scheduled ahead of time, nor do they require patients to travel long distances to get treatment. For adults who are chronically stressed and rarely disconnected from their devices, an on-demand AI therapist seems like an ideal solution to a looming problem.

 However, some users have found the conversational flow of the chatbot clunky and pandering. Woebot can forget crucial context from previous conversations, resulting in redundancies within sessions and the general feeling of talking to a computer instead of a human being. Woebot can do a lot, but it can’t interact with you like your actual therapist.

What remains is the challenge of creating an AI based alternative that is responsive to the subtleties of human interactionAI that can understand the feelings of others the same way a human could. This is no easy task.

Experts in the study of AI and cognition have been working to bridge the gap between a chatbot and a functional therapist. Ellie created at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, is a simulated, embodied AI therapist that gathers, analyzes and responds to behavioral indicators that indicate distress, such as facial expressions, eye gazes and vocal quality. While working with patients through a computer screen, Ellie’s end goal is to identify and diagnose post traumatic-stress disorder (PTSD) and depression in patients the same way a real therapist would.

Ellie represents the beginning of the future of artificially intelligent mobile therapists and counselors, but researchers still stress that Ellie can’t replace traditional PTSD counseling and instead should be used alongside it. While Ellie uses more advanced methods of behavioral analysis than Woebot, some of the intricacies of human interaction and empathy are still too difficult to grasp by Ellie alone. Experts in the field of AI and cognition believe that in order for a virtual therapist to be able to replace a real one, researchers must look to the theory of mind, the concept that other humans have different thoughts from our own, usually grasped by age 4 in children. Because empathy is a core tenant of understanding human behavior, an effective virtual therapist will need to simulate the Theory of Mind to completely replace a human therapist.

 The key to that future is increasing research about what cognitive neural networks tell us about the development of the theory of mind, and integrating said research into the development of more advanced AI. For now, a virtual therapist can’t completely replace a human therapist, but the migration of counseling, therapy and psychiatric services to the virtual realm indicates a shift to more accessible version of mental health care that’s worth exploring and perfecting in the future