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Company Develops 'Therapy AIs' For Trauma Management, Psychotherapy

Dec 30, 2016 12:38 PM EST

In March 2016, a Syrian refugee named Rakan Ghebar started seeing a counsellor. He works as a vice-principal at a school for displaced Syrian children, and when he was asked for advice, he was always told to focus on the present.While the instructions may be hard to follow, it did help him and shared it with his students. And apparently,  his counsellor was Karim, a psychotherapy chatbot.

Yes, that's right. According to the New Yorker, Karim is a chatbot designed by X2AI, an AI startup in Silicon Valley. The company was launched in 2014 by Michiel Rauws and Eugene Bann, an idealistic pair of young immigrant programmers who met in San Francisco.

Rauws had a personal investment on the matter, as he suffers from a lot of chronic health issues and manages them by trying to keep his stress levels in check.

According to him, he noticed that conversations he had with therapists were often formulaic, followed by a few templates and paths. When he thought of making this an automated thing, Bann was already working on an emotion-recognition algoirthm, then soon started X2AI.

The company's creation coincided with a torrent of sad news from Syria. According to Business Insider, the Eastern Mediterranean Public Health Network said at that time, nearly half of Syrian refugees living in a camp in Jordan feel very helpless. Addressing these needs the traditional way -- as in deploying thousands of Arabic-speaking therapists -- would be impossible.

But AI counsellors need no planes, tickets, food, protection and salaries.This gave Rauws and Bann reason to believe that their chatbot had a lot of advantages over a human therapist. The two men travelled to three sites in and around Beirut and tested Karim on a group of about 60 Syrians.

Despite initial misgivings, especially since they have to interact over text and their counselling sessions may be monitored, it was overall a good experience.Knowing that they're not talking with a person can be freeing as well, a way of avoiding social stigma that according to some younger subjects surrounds discussions of anxiety and sadness.

However, Karim is just only one member of X2AI's polylingual family of bots. Others include Emma, a Dutch-language bot designed to help those with mild anxiety and fear. There's Nema, an English-language bot that specializes in pediatric diabetes care. There's also Tess, a highly-adaptable English-language bot that can perform cognitive-behavior therapy, motivational interviewing and various other techniques.

This portfolio reflects the company and its altruistic and pragmatic design to satisfy the needs of a particular client or crisis area.

X2AI describes its bots as therapeutic assistants, which means they offer help and support rather than treatment. The bots are also designed to evaluate statements such as "cut myself" in the broader context of a user's personality and history: are they typically sarcastic, isolate and prone to outbursts?

Good data about the efficacy of AI therapists are scarce given it's a new field. However, their diagnostic capacities appear very promising.  

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