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How Virtual Therapy Could Help the Military Fight PTSD

Meet Ellie, the virtual therapist that could one day help diagnose everyone from soldiers to cancer patients.
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In Afghanistan, a new therapist is talking with soldiers. Her name is Ellie, she is the face of a computer program and she could be the key to identifying PTSD in America’s military.

Equipped with a Microsoft Kinect motion sensor, she nods at the right time, urges patients on with a well-timed “uh-huh,” and knows when to stop talking. A study released earlier this month found that patients were more willing to open up to Ellie than to a human therapist, mostly because they felt like they were not being judged by the computer program.

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Ellie isn’t designed to replace therapists. Instead, her program, called SimSensei, could be used as a screening tool for the military and hospitals. Currently, it’s being tested by members of the National Guard in Afghanistan, but eventually it could be used by civilians suffering from everything from depression to cancer.

“This is a way to identify everyone who needs to be treated, not just people who wave their hands and say, ‘Yes, yes, I have those symptoms,’” Gale Lucas, the University of Southern California social psychologist who led the study, told NBC News. “It could catch the people who would otherwise fall through the cracks.”

The Virtual Therapist Will See You Now

“When was the last time that you felt really happy?”

It’s not a question most people get asked that often. Even less often by a computer program wearing pixelated blue jeans and a cardigan.

At the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), a few miles away from the beach in Playa Vista, California, I am talking about my life with a television monitor outfitted with a Kinect and Logitech webcam. Ellie is patient, waiting for a response, but not so long that it feels awkward.

Like any good therapist, Ellie listens more than she talks. Behind the scenes, however, a program tracks subtle shifts in facial expressions and posture. It measures tone of voice. Combining all of those variables, it can give professionals a probability that someone is suffering from depression or other mental health issues.

Not only that, the study found, but people are more willing to share information about sensitive issues like abortions and sexually transmitted diseases when they know that nobody is watching or controlling the virtual therapist.

“This is way better than talking to a person,” one participant in the study said. “I don’t really feel comfortable talking about personal stuff to other people.’’

The Future of Therapy?

A computer does not get tired. It has no personal history or biases to interpret people through. What it can do is work around the clock, gathering and analyzing massive amounts of data for trained professionals who can take the next step.

That could explain why the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Army funded Lucas’ research. Anywhere from 11 percent to 20 percent of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.

Plans are being drawn to create booths in VA hospitals where veterans can talk to Ellie whenever they would like. Other technology, like the Oculus Rift virtual reality glasses, is also being tested by researchers to help treat PTSD.

The actual hardware required to run SimSensei is not expensive — the Microsoft Xbox 360 Kinect used by the research team sells for $99 — but portability and versatility are still issues, especially in the field where big TV screens and white backgrounds are not always available.

As technology progresses, however, professionals could eventually pack Ellie into a laptop. The goal is to have an inexpensive, easy-to-carry tool that can spot mental health problems early and track them consistently over time, letting real-life therapists do their jobs more effectively.

"Ultimately, the program can give people a sense of safety," Lucas said. "A human therapist can encourage a sense of safety and make people feel anonymous, but they probably can never make someone feel as anonymous as they do talking to computer."