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Electronic Empathy: computers can care

Man using a computer.TV psychiatrist Professor Raj Persaud reports* the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) has recommended making computer-based treatments for anxiety and depression more widely available. He argues this may be seen as another effort to reduce cost rather than meet patient needs. After all, patients want to be seen as individuals and prefer a person to a chip.

I’m not so sure.

In 1995 while researching for a MBA I came across some relevant research into the use of expert systems (considered part of artificial intelligence). Many patients who had consulted an expert system called ELIZA that did little more than ask reflective questions—for example: “Tell me more about…” or “What do you mean by..?”—responded positively. One woman left in tears saying she had never before met someone who understood her so well. Try some therapy from ELIZA.

In 2004 Whitfield and Williams asked: If the Evidence is so Good, Why Doesn’t Anyone Use Them? Surprisingly only about 5 percent of cognitive-based therapists were using computer-based self help as an alternative to face-to-face contact.

Today, if it comes to a choice between a highly personalised computer program, available day and night with no waiting list or 40 minutes with a busy human practitioner, I know which I prefer, Professor Persaud.

*Health Service Journal, 24 May 2007


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well, I don't know if computers can be programmed to display much empathy but conversational expert systems like eliza I think can be extremely valuable to both patient and physician.

Thanks for the comment.

I guess we could get into a debate about whether machines will ever be "intelligent", let alone show empathy. Nonetheless, it is interesting that you say ELIZA is still useful.

Perhaps in human relationships the ability to ask the right questions and to listen and reflect on the answers is still crucial.


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