‘Non-judgmental’ chatbots could be therapists of the future – psychology research

‘Non-judgmental’ chatbots could be therapists of the future – psychology research
People seeking professional help to talk through their issues could soon be pouring out their heart to a machine after a university study into robot counselors delivered promising results.

Researchers from the University of Plymouth’s School of Psychology tested whether the humanoid NAO robot could deliver a motivational interview (MI), a known-counselling technique that encourages people to talk about changing their behavior. According to the results, participants found the robot counselling “helpful” and “enjoyable,” with some sessions lasting up to an hour.

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"We were pleasantly surprised by how easily the participants adapted to the unusual experience of discussing their lifestyle with a robot," said lead author Professor Jackie Andrade. "As we have shown for the first time that a motivational interview delivered by a social robot can elicit out-loud discussion from participants.”

The robot was programmed with a set script pre-prepared to inspire conversation on how the interviewee could get more exercise. Andrade explained that participants in the study, published this month in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, liked how the robot did not interrupt when they were speaking.  

"Concern about being judged by a human interviewer came across strongly in praise for the non-judgemental nature of the robot, suggesting that robots may be particularly helpful for eliciting talk about sensitive issues,” said Andrade, who now hopes to conduct a more thorough, qualitative study.

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Robot counselling has become more prominent in recent times. Psychotherapy chatbots have been used to counsel refugees with mental health problems arising from the trauma of the Syrian civil war. The Karim chatbot designed by X2AI, an AI startup in Silicon Valley, was tested on a group of 60 Syrians with mixed results.

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