Slightly alarming news from Los Angeles, where researchers at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies have developed a virtual therapist. The system interacts with the client through an avatar named Ellie, analysing verbal and non-verbal responses using a webcam and a gaming sensor. The current version uses a real psychologist in the next room to guide Ellie’s questioning, but future iterations promise increasing autonomy.

Ellie’s creators say that she is not meant to replace human therapists, but rather to assist them by taking care of routine information gathering and screening, leaving us old-fashioned flesh and blood shrinks with more time to do the actual healing stuff. That sounds fairly benign, but I can’t help worrying that if our managers hear about a worker who doesn’t need paid, never goes off sick, and always sticks to the treatment protocols, then it won’t be long before we’re all out on the street.

But, you may say, won’t patients resent being fobbed off with an ersatz therapist and demand to see a real live doctor? Well, according to the research, most people find computer-delivered treatment perfectly acceptable, so, yeah, basically we’re doomed…

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