The virtues (and limitations) of virtual therapists
The New Yorker - 10/16/2014
The idea that people can become invested in a non-human figure like the Prof or Apple’s Siri is not radically new; sometimes, at least in Hollywood, they even fall in love. But, outside of the entertainment industry, fully animated guides have struggled to take hold. Timothy Bickmore, a professor of computer science at Northeastern University, studies the use of digital agents (his preferred term) in health care. His research has shown that some groups who are traditionally less familiar with technology—older people and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder—will adapt to agents. For instance, he conducted a study revealing that some hospital patients prefer to have a virtual nurse discharge them, and he has co-written papers showing that having a virtual coach can increase the amount seniors exercise in the short term and can reduce their loneliness. Bickmore identified agents’ slowness of speech and repetition of gestures as features that tend to turn users off.