A virtual shrink may sometimes be better than the real thing
ELLIE is a psychologist, and a damned good one at that. Smile in a certain way, and she knows precisely what your smile means. Develop a nervous tic or tension in an eye, and she instantly picks up on it. She listens to what you say, processes every word, works out the meaning of your pitch, your tone, your posture, everything. She is at the top of her game but, according to a new study, her greatest asset is that she is not human.
When faced with tough or potentially embarrassing questions, people often do not tell doctors what they need to hear. Yet the researchers behind Ellie, led by Jonathan Gratch at the Institute for Creative Technologies, in Los Angeles, suspected from their years of monitoring human interactions with computers that people might be more willing to talk if presented with an avatar. To test this idea, they put 239 people in front of Ellie (pictured above) to have a chat with her about their lives. Half were told (truthfully) they would be interacting with an artificially intelligent virtual human; the others were told (falsely) that Ellie was a bit like a puppet, and was having her strings pulled remotely by a person.
Designed to search for psychological problems, Ellie worked with each participant in the study in the same manner. She started every interview with rapport-building questions, such as, “Where are you from?” She followed these with more clinical ones, like, “How easy is it for you to get a good night’s sleep?” She finished with questions intended to boost the participant’s mood, for instance, “What are you most proud of?” Throughout the experience she asked relevant follow-up questions—“Can you tell me more about that?” for example—while providing the appropriate nods and facial expressions.
Lie on the couch, please
During their time with Ellie, all participants had their faces scanned for signs of sadness, and were given a score ranging from zero (indicating none) to one (indicating a great degree of sadness). Also, three real, human psychologists, who were ignorant of the purpose of the study, analysed transcripts of the sessions, to rate how willingly the participants disclosed personal information.