Robot therapy? Fuck that.

Yesterday, NPR reported on a joint project from USC's Institute for Creative Technologies.  Psychologist Albert "Skip" Rizzo and computer scientist Louis-Philippe Morency have created a robot therapist. According to the article,
"'Everything has been thought of,' says Morency. For example, when patients talk, Ellie encourages them to continue talking with a well timed 'uh-huh,' just as real people do. 'We have recorded more than 200 of these uh-huhs,' Morency says, 'and these are so powerful.'"
Wow, well I guess they did think of everything, since therapy can seemingly be boiled down to a series of well-timed uh-huhs. And here I was listening, trying to understand, and trying to apply stupid things like wisdom. I wish I knew this when I started my blog. They continue,
"Because a simple 'uh-huh' and a silence — if they are done the right way — can be extremely powerful. So we spent a lot of time on these little details."
Uh-huh. I think it's more like "the robot has no idea what you're saying, so all it can say is uh-huh."  The robots main feature isn't its intensely healing uh-huhs, though. It's loaded with sensors of all sorts.
"Under the wide screen where Ellie's image sits, there are three devices. A video camera tracks facial expressions of the person sitting opposite. A movement sensor — Microsoft Kinect — tracks the person's gestures, fidgeting and other movements. A microphone records every inflection and tone in his or her voice. The point, Rizzo explains, is to analyze in almost microscopic detail the way people talk and move — to read their body language."
Oh that makes me much more comfortable. So the robot is like a hyper-scrutinizing therapist, measuring and analyzing everything about you, even things you're not aware of yourself. That's a little freaky to me, like getting therapy from a Terminator. Jeez. This is a screenshot from the Institute...

But all I (and my Photoshop) could see was this:

Now, to be fair, I think this could be interesting and useful for some diagnostic purposes. It could help people diagnose things like anxiety or maybe depression. (Realistically, I bet it'll be adapted for espionage and interrogations.) But is it really a substitute for a therapist? Hell no. But I'm not sure people, and maybe more so academics, really appreciate that fact.

I've lamented America's obsession with standarization, automation, and commercialization before. It all goes back to the assembly line at Ford Motor Company at the turn of the 20th century. Ford realized he could automate the manufacturing of cars and produce more, faster. In the 1950s McDonalds followed suit by dividing the kitchen into work stations. America fell in love with the concept of mass production because it was a great vehicle for making money. Marketers got smarter, and the industry figured out how to get us addicted to their products. The consumer was born...and exploited. We've commodified (turned into a commodity) nearly everything: education, art, food, health care, and now, therapy.

The urge to commodify therapy is surely related to the broader commodification of health care, where insurance companies have tried to standardize and minimize treatment in order to maximize profits. Therapy sessions were limited, and superimposed with a rigid structure, much like an assembly line. The first two sessions are for building rapport and gathering information; the next session is for diagnosis; then interventions, follow up, and kick em out the fucking door. It's a travesty, and it's not how healing really happens. Forget the fact that there's no way you can really understand a problem in 2 one-hour sessions, or that diagnoses--which are highly stigmatizing--are usually corrected after 7 or 8 sessions. The automation of therapy leaves no room for a therapist's humanity...the connection, understanding, forgiveness, and compassion that open the door for healing.

The researchers at the Institute for Creative Technologies have taken the mindless worship of industrialization to an extreme, by literally removing the human from therapy. They recklessly disseminate the idea that therapy, like education or medicine, can be boiled down to formulas and algorithmic. It's a wildly dangerous notion that, without correction, will quickly devour this ancient healing art, in the same way its devoured our education system.

Questions? Thanks.