Therapy is a type of treatment that helps patients relieve emotional distress and cope with mental health problems. Provided by a variety of certified professionals – from psychiatrists to psychologists and social workers – counseling involves gaining insight into the life choices and struggles faced by individuals, couples, or families and creating an action plan to address them.
Patients go to therapy for a variety of complex reasons, including overcoming mental health conditions, working out conflicts, healing from trauma, improving their interpersonal skills, and receiving support after a loved one’s death.
Similarly to many other fields, therapy is constantly evolving based on substantiated theories on human personality and behavior. Technological developments have also had a tremendous impact on therapy. Nowadays, for example, numerous mental health companies offer online therapy, allowing patients to schedule sessions with their therapists via communication platforms such as Zoom and WhatsApp.
With the recent popularization of artificial intelligence tools like Replika and Chat GPT, many have wondered whether the technology will disrupt therapy as we know it. More specifically, will AI replace therapists in the near future? In what follows, we take a look at AI and how it may potentially be used in therapy.
The AI age
While artificial intelligence took the world by storm in 2023 with the release of Chat GPT, its origins can be traced back to the 20th century, when researchers started exploring the concept of intelligent machines. Alan Turing, John McCarthy, and Marvin Minky laid the foundations for AI in the 1950s and 1960s. Turing in particular proposed the idea of a “universal machine” capable of simulating any other machine’s behavior.
In the following decades, AI research developed, progressing in several directions—one of them being the development of expert systems whose goal was to mimic human expertise in specific areas. The superior computational power and availability of large quantities of data in the early 2000s resulted in major AI breakthroughs—from deep learning to image and speech recognition.
2023, however, marked the beginning of what business magnate Bill Gates has called “the AI age”. Nowadays, tools like DALL-E, Midjourney, Fotor, and NightCafe can create hyper-realistic images and high-quality art in a matter of seconds. On the other hand, Open AI’s natural language processing tool, Chat GPT, is capable of communicating like a human being and carrying out complex tasks such as text translation, essay writing, and coding.
While there are many benefits to the technology, its introduction to the market has sparked worries about AI taking over certain roles traditionally held by humans. Open AI researchers speculate that the program could impact at least 50% of the tasks necessary for approximately 19% of the jobs in the United States. To date, the professionals most affected by the artificial intelligence boom include graphic designers, copywriters, poets, lyricists, translators, public relations specialists, mathematicians, blockchain engineers, accountants, and journalists.
That leaves the question: how likely is therapy to be taken over by AI?
How AI can transform the future of therapy sessions
The same research from Open AI claims that the least affected jobs by artificial intelligence will be industries known for manual labor, such as food services, forestry and logging, and food manufacturing. It isn’t exactly clear how therapy will be impacted by the rapid developments in the AI field yet.
There are, however, several AI programs attempting to provide mental health assistance. Replika, for example, simulates human communication by engaging in discussions with the user. According to founder Eugenia Kuyda, the conversational chatbot has been a helpful tool for young people with autism and lonely adults. Wysa’s AI chatbot, on the other hand, is more focused on providing emotional support and guidance to users experiencing stress, anxiety, and depression among other mental health issues.
Other tech companies like Limbic AI are using artificial intelligence to support both patients and therapists. Its chatbot is capable of conducting mental health screening, identifying the patient’s needs and preferences, and recommending suitable treatment options. In the UK, Limbic AI’s chatbot is being used by millions of people and has effectively reduced waiting times.
Practically all the leading online therapy sites utilize artificial intelligence in some way or another. Talkspace—known for being one of the pioneers of online therapy—relies on AI for a number of tasks, including matching therapists to patients, tracking therapists’ performance, assessing therapists’ efficacy at onboarding, and supporting therapists’ engagement with patients in between sessions. In a public financial filing, the teletherapy giant said, “We believe that virtual therapy offers an attractive opportunity to improve behavioral health through data science and machine learning.”
The limitations of AI mental health support
In an earnings call in early 2023, Talkspace’s CEO, Dr. Jon Cohen, rejected the possibility of AI taking over online therapy, saying, “Our approach on this is not that [artificial intelligence such as] Chat GPT will provide a substitute in any way for the therapist…What it can do is help direct the therapist in ways to provide better therapy for their patients.”
Polling data from Pew Research Center reveals that 60% of consumers aren’t comfortable with their health provider relying on AI. And 79% of survey participants claimed that they wouldn’t want to use an AI chatbot for seeking health support.
While AI mental health chatbots offer several advantages—accessibility, affordability, and anonymity—it has numerous limitations. Regardless of how human a language processing tool such as Chat GPT may sound, it cannot replicate the human ability to empathize with another person’s emotions and lived experiences, which is a crucial aspect for building trust in therapy. It can’t match the expertise and intuition that therapists have acquired and developed through years of extensive training practice that equips them to handle complex situations and cases.
Human-to-human teletherapy—which has positioned itself as the next evolution of traditional therapy—presently struggles to support patients suffering from more serious psychiatric conditions, including severe depression, schizophrenia, and substance use disorders. It is highly unlikely that artificial intelligence will be able to overcome that limitation.
The artificial technology breakthroughs of the past years are progressively changing our everyday life. With AI programs capable of replicating human speech and performing complex tasks in a matter of seconds, there are mounting uncertainties regarding the future of several traditionally-human jobs.
While AI-powered mental health programs may offer helpful information and make both the patient and care provider experiences easier, it is unlikely that the technology will completely replace professional therapists. AI presently lacks the empathy, expertise, and intuitive approach that only experienced and certified experts have.