Robots are already here, just like jet packs and flying cars. What’s next is a question of who has them, where they are, what they’re supposed to do, and how they are actually used. Cats riding around on Roombas? That’s just the beginning.
Something I’ve been thinking about quite a lot is the idea of AI therapy. I think it’s the only way to democratize something that, at the current moment, is unaffordable for most people. I’ve been hearing stories of people waiting months for an appointment with a therapist because demand exceeds supply. This is because good therapy doesn’t scale.
Ideally, a person in need could schedule almost unlimited sessions with a talented, caring therapist who is a good match, and it could be on demand. If someone is having a breakdown at 3:00 am, well, they need someone, and why should they wait?
In the human world, that is obviously too much to expect even of a highly compensated and trained professional. People need to sleep, at the bare minimum. Sometimes they’re going to be in the shower. Even if a living human being could be “on” every minute of the day, they can only talk to one client at a time - and this is the major reason why therapy doesn’t scale. It’s not like a fitness class where a few more people can crowd into the back row.
To my understanding, there is already chat-based therapy on the market. You can trade text messages with someone when you need counseling. I can see how that would really help a lot of people who don’t want to look someone else in the face, or have reasons why they don’t want to travel across town, or are in a room where it isn’t safe to reveal what they are doing. People have already adapted to the idea that you don’t need to vocalize to have a rewarding conversation.
I don’t think artificial intelligence is *quite* ready to take the place of traditional talk therapy. I do think it wouldn’t take much, though. Early experiments dating as far back as 1964 show that people are surprisingly willing to get into it with a string of text. I bet a lot of people would be more willing to reveal their deepest secrets and darkest moments if they knew it was only going to, well, a vending machine.
The great thing about an always-on chat therapist is that you could let your mind wander and ask it random things, like what you should wear to your job interview or how to rearrange your bedroom furniture, and it wouldn’t mind.
Something I’ve been thinking about besides the idea of a universally accessible and artificially intelligent therapist is the way that people are using robots in the home. They are becoming fairly routine in caregiving settings. I would have pictured industrial robots disinfecting surfaces or monitoring vital signs - and there are bots that do that - but what we are seeing are more along the lines of things for cuddling and social interaction.
A lot of the stuff that is meant for monitoring, disinfecting, and other chores is going to be built into the building infrastructure. We aren’t even going to recognize that these are robots, any more than we think of an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser or a dishwasher as robots.
The crossover isn’t very far away. You take a sensitive and responsive chat AI that is always available and perceived as trustworthy, and then combine it with some kind of cuddly, harmless robot body. If you get it right, and manage to avoid the uncanny valley entirely, what you have is an irresistible empath-bot.
A lot of us grew up with two robots, one a clumsy and socially awkward nerdbot and the other an endearing appliance. I already know which one you would feel more comfortable trying to engage in serious conversation.
What we’re going to have in the near future is something that feels more like a beloved pet, yet wiser and kinder. Something endlessly patient and occasionally funny, something that never misses on mood.
At this point of development, I think this bot would also be fully capable of tracking all our appointments, stray bits of information, and the location of our keys, glasses, and remote controls. This is why we would trust it so much, because it would keep us out of trouble over and over again.
All we can do is wonder what would happen if most people suddenly had access to the trauma robot, even people on the street or in jail.
Would some people elect to stay inside for hours every day, spending months at a stretch rehashing the worst or most devastatingly confusing events of their lives? Would this maybe come at the expense of forming and maintaining ordinary, messy human relationships?
Where nobody ever says the right thing, and always manages to say vitally fresh and new awful things?
Or would access to all this free, human-designed therapy help us to improve our human interactions? Would on-demand customized talk therapy actually heal us and make us more robust? Could learning to interact with this software make us better able to handle the disappointments of traditional social and family life?
I have no idea. I have no idea what humans will be doing a century from now, just as I can only guess how they will judge us when they look back. We make fun of our historical forebears for having fleas and smelling bad, and I’m sure in the distant future we will seem equally ridiculous for one reason or another.
I do suspect, though, that there will be another kind of “trauma robot.” It seems likely that as robots become more common, making deliveries or answering questions in public places, they will be targets of abuse by random passersby. People will most likely vandalize them with permanent markers, dress them in costumes, or slap stickers on them. They might also try to knock them over, throw stuff at them, taze them, or dismantle them.
As they become more intelligent, perhaps these tormented public service bots will turn to one another, talking it out from their charging bases.
And then what?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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