Your robot therapist will see you now.

Posted by Flux on 

28 May 2021

This article was originally published in City Press

A recent study on mental health by Fast Company, Workplace Intelligence and Oracle – which surveyed more than 12,000 workers in 11 countries – found that the majority of the respondents (82%) were turning to technology, rather than humans, to support their mental health issues.

These technologies are primarily artificial intelligence (AI) technologies like chatbots and digital assistants. AI is also known as “machine learning” so it makes sense that an algorithm can be programmed to, not only respond to a range of frequently asked questions, but also delve into more specific conversation threads when prompted to do so.  In tough economic times, downloading and paying for an app service is more affordable than seeing a therapist: it’s very private, robots won’t judge you and you’ll have 24/7 support.

Woebot is one such “robot therapist”. The app is an emotional support platform that uses the mindfulness exercises and mood regulation of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help improve your mental health. It uses short conversations to provide gauge your mood patterns and will recommend escalated care when it senses you need it. 

It’s unsurprising that the trend for digital therapy has taken off. Last year the pandemic laid bare the fragility of mental health issues, and the need for empathy becoming necessary amongst work colleagues, as well as in your social and family circles.

With our vaccine rollout yet to gain momentum and the virus already mutating, the prospect of at least another year (or more) of life in limbo, is beginning to  sink in. 

Lockdown restrictions may have eased, but the virus hasn’t, and so our half-lives continue. Indefinitely.

Adam Grant, an organisational psychologist and motivational expert, describes this life in limbo as “languishing”. In the New York Times, he wrote, Languishing is the neglected middle child of mental health. It’s the void between depression and flourishing — the absence of well-being. You don’t have symptoms of mental illness, but you’re not the picture of mental health either. You’re not functioning at full capacity. Languishing dulls your motivation, disrupts your ability to focus, and triples the odds that you’ll cut back on work”. 

Things in South Africa are no different. Deloitte’s latest ‘State of the Consumer’ tracker found that the anxiety levels currently experienced by South Africans surpasses the global average, with the biggest concerns locally around finances – even ahead of health concerns of COVID-19.

Adding anxiety to “languishing” means that we’re all starting to have problems with our attention spans, time perception and organisation capabilities. And this is where robotic assistance kicks in.

The pandemic has spawned a new contactless economy, and in turn, the contactless economy has fast-tracked robot integration around the world. There is common consensus that technologies that were waiting in the wings in 2019, have been fast-tracked by five years, in one year, which is why seeing a “co-bot” (a robotic co-worker) no longer seems strange or futuristic.

There are three sectors where you are most likely to come into contact with a co-bot: healthcare, hospitality and service or maintenance. The proliferation of these robots are across the globe, from Mexico to Egypt to South Korea. 

In South Africa, Quinten – a telepresence, healthcare bot – has been working in Tygerberg Hospital’s Covid-19 intensive care unit in Cape Town, visually connecting family members with patients that have to be isolated.

In Johannesburg’s Hotel Sky, there are three “hospitality bots” – Lexi, Micha and Ariel – working as check-in, luggage and room service assistants.

If you came across a robot vacuum cleaner in someone’s home, it probably wouldn’t even raise an eyebrow. On social media, you’ll find numerous videos of a family cat hitching a ride on this type of service bot. Even they’ve grown accustomed to robots. 

But if, unlike the vacuum robot riding cats, you’re still not quite used to having robots around, let alone reveal your inner most fears and anxieties to an algorithm, there are intermediate technology platforms that will hold your hand (virtually), until you become accustomed to the machines.

BioBeats is a combination of an app and wearable tech, so if you use something like a Fitbit, it won’t feel any different. This platform tracks physical health data like your heart rate, your sleep patterns and your activity levels and then uses that information to determine your state of mental well-being. The app then suggests “biofeedback therapy”, like deep breathing and meditation exercises.

But robot therapists are becoming more mainstream. In Sweden, Flow is a free, government-approved chatbot therapist that can be used by people who are waiting to see a human therapist but are struggling with immediate mental health issues. It bridges the gap between human and algorithmic therapy.

In a post-pandemic world, when people have become more comfortable about speaking openly about mental health issues, it will soon simply be a personal preference of whether you prefer a human or robot therapist.

By Dion Chang

Dion Chang is the founder of Flux Trends. 

Image credit: Rawpixel

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