As artificial intelligence (AI) systems continue to advance, robots have gone from being a pipe dream in the faraway future to real alternatives in present-day jobs. There are now robot baristas, robot cleaners, and robot dogs. And now, robot therapists?
According to a recent study by tech company Oracle and HR advisory firm Workplace Intelligence, 82 percent of people surveyed in 11 countries believe robots can support their mental health better than humans. It also found that the COVID-19 pandemic has increased work-related stress on many people, negatively affecting the mental health of 78 percent of the global workforce.
Previous studies have also noted an increase in mental health issues, especially among young people, which has been attributed to social media.
With the lack of mental health professionals and social workers in many countries, some experts believe that using robots could help clinics diagnose people, giving psychiatrists and psychologists more time to counsel other patients.
Singapore, for example, remains one of the world's most overworked cities and is in need of better mental health services. The government now plans to take measures to solve the mental health crisis, with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing the problem in a recent speech.
“AI would definitely help with the automation of routine tasks such as psychometric assessments or IQ tests, which would give us space to do other things,” Desmond Soh, a practicing psychologist at Singapore’s Annabelle Psychology, told VICE News.
Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed a neural-network model that can detect depression in speech patterns in recorded text and audio of conversations. In the future, the model could be added to mobile apps that monitor a user’s text and voice for mental distress. This could be especially useful for people who can’t go to a mental health clinic for a proper diagnosis due to distance, cost, or even uneasiness of being vulnerable to a human therapist.
Beyond diagnosis, a study by the Australian Centre for Robotic Vision and the Queensland University of Technology found that social robots have enormous potential to help people deal with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders.
"The beauty of social robot interventions is that they could help to side-step potential negative effects of face-to-face therapy with a human health practitioner such as perceived judgement or stigma," Dr. Nicole Robinson, co-author of the study, said.
According to the Oracle survey, only 18 percent of people would prefer humans over robots to support their mental health as they believe robots provide a judgement-free zone, an unbiased outlet to share problems, and quick answers to health-related questions.
Robots could also pave the way for new modes of treatment, opportunities to engage hard-to-reach populations, and better patient response, a study by the Technical University of Munich found.
But technology still has its limitations.
Researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) looked into the ethical implications of robot therapists and found that people may be more easily manipulated by robots than fellow humans.
Then there’s the matter of empathy, a quality that will be difficult to replicate as it cannot be fully automated or programmed, at least not right now.
20-year-old Singapore resident Jolin Pan attends counseling sessions for her anxiety. While she sees the benefits of robots in mental health, she said she still longs for that human connection.
“When I go for a counseling session I would want someone who has emotion and who can empathize,” she told VICE News. “I think robots or AI systems definitely help to a certain extent but when it comes to more complex problems such as deep-rooted family issues or intricate friendship conflicts, I feel that an AI would not be able to meet my needs.”
Soh said this human connection is crucial to effectively manage mental health concerns.
“While a robot can be programmed to say certain things, it's different when it comes from another human who might have his [or] her own struggles,” he said.