Can a computer generated therapist help diagnose depression or other emotional problems?
There is a computer application designed to do just that, and it holds a lot of promise for mental health providers.
The computer generates a pleasant voice of a young woman and says, "Please feel free to tell me anything. Your answers will be totally confidential. Will that be alright with you?"
Her name is 'Ellie', a computer generated therapist programmed to engage the patient in a conversation about their emotional health like a real person. Yet unlike a computer, she can read body language.
Psychotherapist Dr. Walter Smitson who heads the Central Clinic says body language is important to communication.
"About 80% of what we convey to each other is non-verbal," said Dr. Smitson.
Smitson says it's those non-verbal cues that reveal a lot about how a person is really feeling.
"A person may be saying I'm OK. I'm feeling fine, and their body language may be telling a totally different story. So I think we try to put those two pieces of information together. Is what you're saying verbally... Let's put that together. Does it match up with what your body language shows," explained Dr. Smitson.
Ellie is designed to uncover even the smallest changes in body language. She tracks the patient's body language, like eye movement, gestures and vocal features, more than 1000 times a minute.
Dr. Strakowski leads UC Medical Center's Psychiatry Department. He says it's something people do intuitively.
"The computer has quantified the same kinds of things that a human brain would also see, but it makes a more direct measurement, as opposed to somewhat of an intuitive measurement," Dr. Strakowski said.
Ellie is used as a tool rather than a replacement for therapists.
"One of the hopes with these kinds of programs is that people who may be uncomfortable, anxious or even dishonest in front of a person, may not be those things in front of a computer, but there's a lot of work to go to see if that's really true," added Dr. Strakowski.
The Ellie computer simulation isn't currently being used in the Tri-State area, but the folks here at UC Medical Center say that's just a matter of time.
Ellie was originally commissioned by the Department of Defense as a way to help military therapists prevent suicides among troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
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