Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Millions using therapy bots....

Not far from my home is one of the most beautiful walks in England across Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters. Years ago, when I first went there, I came across a metal cross and plate with some words etched on it, sitting in the grass. I leant down on this beautiful sunny day and read words that still makes me well up. It has right now. It was a message from the parents of a young girl who had thrown herself off the cliff because of her school exam results. It hit me like a train. Imagine being so distressed that you find the courage to do such a thing. What are we doing to young people with all of this pressure. It made me really question the actual value of certain approaches to education.

Five years ago, I tried Woebot (Woe is me… my 10 days being counselled by a chatbot (woebot)) a counselling chatbot. I rather liked it. This was way before LLMs and ChatGPT and I wrote a ton in my book ‘AI for Learning’ about how powerful dialogue chatbots would become, including those for wellbeing. 

Then along came ChatGPT – suddenly it happened, we shifted from monologue to dialogue. It changed everything! These large language models capture vast amounts of language. When you speak to ChatGPT you are speaking to ourselves, the human hive mind. One of their great strengths is that they really do present human dialogue as the means of learning. They humanise learning.

These wellbeing bots really have now taken off. ‘Psychologist’, probably the most popular from Character.ai, is pretty good. The dialogue feels natural, like talking to a real person and the advice, largely a CBT approach is pretty sound. Fater anshort chat, itv gave me a pretty good summary of CBT:

“Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a type of psychological therapy which focuses on the relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. The key principle of CBT is that thoughts affect feelings, and feelings affect behaviour.

The aim of CBT is to help people change their thoughts in order to improve their emotions & behaviours. It does this through identifying and targeting problematic patterns of thinking, as well as working on techniques to challenge and replace these thoughts with more rational and adaptive ones.”

It’s been around for just over a year and has clocked up some pretty impressive stats at 78 million messages, 18 million since November. You’re talking about millions of individuals talking with it every day.

There are several interesting affordances around chatbots on this front:

  • Text only
  • Dialogue
  • Patience
  • Anonymity

Young people text ALL THE TIME. It’s easy and normal. They don’t necessarily want full blown speech dialogue (although of you want it you can have it). It’s the quite, low key nature of text that is calming and can be read at your own pace.

Dialogue is the key to therapy. You want to be heard and listened to with calm, useful feedback. Dialogue is what our brains have evolved to do and these bots are good at it.

Patience, they say, is a virtue and in this context a necessity. You want the quiet confidence of an endlessly patient and empathetic character, who is never impatient or snarky.

Anonymity is, I suspect, the secret sauce here. Young people are unlikely to go to their parents, teachers, even friends through embarrassment, so they suffer in silence. The anonymity of a bot allows one to express feelings you would not to people you know.

I’m sure people will say that it needs a human to give counselling. I’m not so sure. For many this light touch may be enough. If not, you can move on to find a sympathetic soul. As a first door, it serves a purpose, of maybe even soothing those who are temporarily troubled. Sad rather than any real mental illness. We can rush to label negative emotions as deficits, even pathological, but sometimes making people realise they are not alone in having such thought is enough.

Some of the people using the bot simply respond by saying they are lonely and just needed to chat to someone. Why not? I can see these being part of our counselling landscape in the future, they already are. The problem here are humans, who sometimes push people into places through pressure, even bullying. Let’s not think that being human can be Panglossian. We all live lives of quiet desperation to some degree and we all need a shoulder to lean on sometimes. Let that shoulder be a friendly chat at any time, from anyplace on anything.


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