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And, based on certain words she's been trained to pick up, Sensei can appropriately respond with an expression that either conveys understanding — like an "Uhuh" or a nod — or a sense of empathy, like an "Oh I'm sorry." To ask a question, Sensei leans in.
For example, in addition to determining when someone is sharing information that's generally positive or negative, Sensei can differentiate between when someone is asking a question and when they are making a statement.
"We had this empathetic listening that draws people out to make them say more things, plus a feeling of anonymity," said Gratch.
To make Sensei, Gratch and his team spent years studying how people convey to each other that they're interested in what another person is saying, something called "active listening." They looked at what characteristics lead someone to say "Uhuh" in a conversation, for example, or "I'm sorry," as well as what sort of hand gestures we tend to use and when.
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Others are scrapping the idea of real people altogether and experimenting with on-screen, artificial intelligence-powered robots. Some people think the future of therapy won't take place in an office. There’s no business hours or office hours, those don’t exist," said Frank.
"I've had clients disclose things to me [on Talkspace] that they say they’d never disclose face-to-face," Licensed Professional Counselor Katherine Glick, one of the therapists who works for Talkspace told me. One reason, suggests Jonathan Gratch, who directs the center for virtual humans research at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, is because we feel more anonymous there (whether we actually are is another matter).
"People are more honest on web forms," says Gratch.
If you've ever massaged the details of a story to make yourself look better or chosen to hide other information that might make you look worse, you've engaged in what Gratch calls "impression management." It's a phase therapists spend lots of time getting past so they can get to a place where clients are being honest with them and letting them help. To Gratch, the future of therapy lies between these two important things: anonymity and rapport.
And he thinks a "virtual person" might be the part of the solution.
There will be no couches, no tissues, no awkward first-date-esque meetings. After all, they say, most of our daily interactions already happen via text. Talkspace is spearheading this change by linking people with therapists they can talk to via text. Therapists who use the service agree that text-based therapy has its advantages.
(The app also recently began offering real-time video chat, but some 80% of users use the texting feature only.) "Roni Frank, Talkspace's co-founder and head of clinical services, told me. Some of them include having clients who feel more comfortable because they don't have to sit in a room with a therapist.
"They just feel safer disclosing things that way," he said.