Would You Tell Your Secrets to a Robot?

She is from L.A. and talks to people that are struggling emotionally. But she is no ordinary woman.  She can analyze every aspect of you completely. The way you smile, turn your head, and the way you speak – taking in 30 data points per second.  Her name is Ellie, and she lives in a computer screen in a lab at the University of Southern California.

Ellie is a virtual therapist that has been created to assist in diagnosing depression. Talking to a virtual human about your troubles might seem strange, but her makers believe she could revolutionize the way mental health is practiced. So what makes her so special? As Ellie gently probes you for information, every answer you give is watched and studied in minute detail by a simple gaming sensor and a webcam. Your body language and tone of voice is recorded and analyzed by the computer system, which then tells Ellie how to best interact with you. 

According to U.S. psychologist Albert Skip Rizzo, computers like Ellie offer the ability to look at massive amounts of data and begin to look at patterns. Ellie is particularly being targeted at people who find it difficult to open up, such as military veterans who are at risk for depression and suicide. The data in these sessions are analyzed in real time to look for indicators of psychological distress. If the person shows signs of someone who’s depressed, then the person will be flagged.

The creation of Ellie represents one facet of dramatic changes occurring in healthcare. Doctors are willingly adopting tablets, apps and social media to assist with patient care.  Moreover there has been a shift in placing greater importance on using harder science and data to assist with medical diagnoses. The idea is that with better tools and data, healthcare professionals can make more accurate diagnoses. Despite the numerous advantages offered by these consumer gadgets – there is a quiet unease surrounding the use of them in an area as sensitive as healthcare. Skeptics are questioning whether patients with deep emotional baggage will feel comfortable talking to a robot about their problems, and whether apps can be relied upon to assist in medical diagnoses.

Furthermore, the explosion of social media has created further difficulties in defining appropriate communication boundaries between doctors and their patients. With social media so heavily integrated into people’s lives, many doctors have gotten in trouble for making inappropriate remarks about their patients on Facebook and Twitter.

IDG Connect has released a new report on how consumer devices are dramatically changing healthcare. It examines the numerous benefits it offers, such as the integration of iPads into practicing medicine, and the use of apps that can track patient health.  It also questions the impact of these devices on the patient-doctor relationship. Are these devices actually improving patient care – or are they contributing to destroying the heart of healthcare – the traditional patient-doctor relationship?

The full report: Robots, Tablets and Social Media: The Impact of Consumer Technology on Healthcare can be found here.


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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