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We're Doomed: Robot Therapists Are the Future

The world of The Jetsons or a Brave New World? Scientists have developed a new form of robo-therapist that may revolutionize the mental health field.

Her name is Ellie and she is the brainchild of psychologist Al Rizzo and computer scientist Louis-Philippe Moerncy at the USC Institute for Creative Technologies.

Commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense, Ellie originally was designed to collect and analyze the data for underlying psychosis of her patients, namely military veterans who were at risk for suicide and depression.

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Ellie's set up goes as follows. On a screen, patients see a virtual brunette, with hair pulled back in nondescript work casual attire (imagine a Sims character with a Ph.D). Under the screen are three devices: a video camera for tracking patient facial expressions, a movement sensor for monitoring body gestures, and a microphone that picks up all variations and subtleties of voice.

As Ellie asks her patients questions and encourages answers with carefully placed "uh-huhs" and drawn-out silences, she compiles emotional data based on the every movement, tone, inflection, and expression of her patients -- literally capturing 30 measurements per second (that's 1,800 measurements per minute).

Ellie's introduction into the real word will take place this summer as she interviews veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. But manly people are still (understandably) wary of Ellie's impact on the medical world.

While the computer will offer unbiased insight into the physical tells of the human mind, it is arguable that using subtle expressions to measure emotion doesn't boil down to such a black-and-white science.

Regardless, Ellie's foray into the mainstream mental health profession is still a distant future for many of us -- probably falling somewhere in the technology timeline of robo-teachers and bionic construction crews.

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