How will AI affect psychotherapy?

This week, I was invited to speak on Fox 5 NYC’s nightly news program about the following topic:

“How will artificial intelligence impact therapy & psychology?”

In addition to the highly rewarding work of running June Health, I have an engineering degree and have spent most of my career involved with technology, so I am very excited about this discussion.  The whole segment is only 2 minutes (and I’m one of 3 ‘experts’ featured so don’t blink).  In addition to the sound bite, here are my thoughts and the views of my partner, Chris Kingman, LCSW on this topic:

First and foremost, terms like AI and machine learning get thrown around a lot, so it’s important to make sure we are all talking about the same thing.  Here is my definition of AI (artificial intelligence): “Using computers to find patterns in data, and then using those patterns to make better decisions”.   That’s a far cry from creating living, sci-fi robot-humans who are going to become our overlords!

With anything related to AI and medicine it’s also useful to make a distinction: Is the technology B2C (business to consumer) – meaning will it be something that the end consumer (the patient) uses or will it be B2B (business to business) meaning something that the provider (the doctor) uses?  The use cases are very different.

Like everything, there are benefits and risks/limitations.

The Benefits:

  1. Better diagnostics.  Anything that helps doctors and therapists make better decisions is wonderful  (it might not be so in all cases – see limitations). Human behavior is often about complex patterns so any tool that helps doctors and therapists see those patterns has the potential to be incredibly valuable.
  2. Access.  Technology and AI may help people get care in remote areas where they cannot get care today. Telehealth (remote care using technology) will become increasingly intertwined with AI.
  3. Cost.  Improved processes that come from AI may help lower the cost of treatment in certain cases

Risks & Limitations:

  1. It’s all about the data.  Machines can look for patterns, however if they don’t get good data, they don’t make good recommendations.  Data often comes with a lot of human bias in it, which is extremely hard to strip out.  More work is needed.
  2. Who designs the system.  As we are seeing more and more, there are big platform companies who control the AI systems.  Do they have incentives and goals that may not be aligned with the public interest?  It’s sometimes hard to say, but it’s a question we need to ask.

The Bottom Line:

To assess the true value of AI, we have to ask what is most important for results in psychotherapy?

There is strong scientific evidence to suggest that what matters most to client outcomes is the therapist-client alliance.  This is supported by our experienced team’s personal view from years working with clients in New York City.  A connection between the therapist and client on a deep level with genuine listening & understanding is the “secret” to results.  Computers cannot do this.  Nothing surpasses the value of human-to-human connection when it comes to healing & growth.

At June Health, we fully support the tools of technology to augment the value of therapy, however we do not see them as a replacement.  The power of connection is unmistakable when trying to help someone do any of the following:

  • Face and heal from past traumas
  • Learn to be less defensive and more loving and connected in their relationships
  • Put down addictions and take more responsibility for their actions and emotional health
  • Be free from anxiety and depression
  • Live happier and more fulfilling lives

All of this requires personal care, compassion and something that is remarkably human and not easily replicated with a silicon transistor.

Steve Shaheen & Chris Kingman

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