How AI and machine learning can help improve therapy for humans

When I first saw a headline in the Technology Review about therapists using AI to improve treatment, my initial instinct was to cringe. With the rise of remote therapy apps, I can absolutely envision a world where some intrepid entrepreneur decides to "disrupt" the cognitive behavioral therapy industry by automating the process with help from algorithms that will inevitably be exposed as racist and sexist and who knows what else.

But the story that Charlotte Jee and Will Douglas Heaven actually tell in the Review is much more nuanced and interesting. It focuses on words, and how machine learning might help us to identify those elusive words we're always looking for. A large part of psychological healing involves finding the right words to identify and describe your scenario and experience; some of the greatest epiphanies and breakthroughs come when you finally find the right words for something you've been struggling with. And that's what these therapists are proposing: using AI to help people find those words.

What's crucial is delivering the right words at the right time. Blackwell and his colleagues at Ieso are pioneering a new approach to mental-health care in which the language used in therapy sessions is analyzed by an AI. The idea is to use natural-language processing (NLP) to identify which parts of a conversation between therapist and client—which types of utterance and exchange—seem to be most effective at treating different disorders.

The aim is to give therapists better insight into what they do, helping experienced therapists maintain a high standard of care and helping trainees improve. Amid a global shortfall in care, an automated form of quality control could be essential in helping clinics meet demand. 

Ultimately, the approach may reveal exactly how psychotherapy works in the first place, something that clinicians and researchers are still largely in the dark about. A new understanding of therapy's active ingredients could open the door to personalized mental-health care, allowing doctors to tailor psychiatric treatments to particular clients much as they do when prescribing drugs.

There's a lot more, of course. But that's an approach to AI treatment I can get behind.

The therapists using AI to make therapy better [Charlotte Jee and Will Douglas Heaven / MIT Technology Review]

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