The Defense Department’s Advanced Research Center (DARPA) has recently created Ellie, a new virtual therapist that is testing positively and patients are responding. One of the first patients Ellie treated was a war veteran. During the conversation with the soldier, Ellie read the subtleties of his facial expression, nodded appreciatively at his insights, and slightly grimaced as he explained the trauma he experienced during the war.
Ellie is an avatar, a virtual therapist developed at the University of Southern California with funding from DARPA. Louis-Philippe Morency, a research assistant professor at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies, stated that people love interacting with the virtual therapist. Morency has been working on Ellie for several years. She is the next part of the university’s SimSensei endeavour, a project that advances the artificial intelligence capabilities of machines.
The goal of SimSensei is to create a new generation of clinical interactive support tools that are able to identify and classify psychological stress and trauma. With the virtual therapist, Morency and his team have successfully created a program that reads human emotions in real time, and responds with human-like emotion via animation.
To build Ellie, SimSensei took a three step approach: first, they observed actual humans interacting in a therapist setting to analyze the behavioral and linguistic nuances of emotional testimony and conversation. The next step was to create a framework of a virtual human. The framework would be able to exhibit all the emotion of a person via commands. Finally, they added a dialogue manager and facial movement sensors to create a system that can read and respond to human emotion aptly.
However, the new virtual therapist would not yield positive responses from patients until the team added the animation avatar, Ellie, a “body” to their program. According to the program’s creators, when a patient has a conversation with Ellie, she will be able to identify symptoms of depression, anxiety, and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The alleviation of PTSD is something that DARPA has been pursuing for years.
Morency and the rest of the SimSensie team have been showcasing Ellie and her virtual therapist peers in Los Angeles. Those who were curious what it would be like to be evaluated by an avatar got a first hand look at the experience. Approximately 500 people have tested the program, and according to Morency, most of those who have spoken with Ellie enjoy the experience, citing that each demo was supposed to be 15 minutes long, but people kept extending their time to 30 minutes.
Morency attributes patients’ positive responses to the new virtual therapist’s ability to make people feel comfortable by not making it seem like its judging its patients. He continued to describe that people are more open with programs like Ellie because they know she is a computer and feel comfortable enough to not censor themselves and honestly discuss things that have been bothering them. The virtual therapist is so efficient at reading the emotional testimony, it feeds back apt responses that comfort the patient.
By Andres Loubriel