In the 1960s, an MIT scientist named Joseph Weizenbaum developed a computer program designed to simulate Carl Rogers’ humanistic therapy sessions.
This program made a succession of open questions so that, seeing them through a screen, the patient could express his feelings as he would do with a humanist therapist. The initiative was so successful that many patients found it difficult to accept the idea that they had been interacting with a computer program, and believed that there was a real person sending them the messages.
Today, what is known as computerized therapy exploits all the possibilities of the current technological development to offer something similar to what was offered by Weizenbaum’s program. But will computers replace psychologists if this line of action continues to be pursued?
Until now, computers have occasionally been used as a therapy channel, that is, a place where therapists and clients or patients have met over the Internet . This possibility has almost always been seen as a limited version of face-to-face sessions, and therefore when it is possible it is recommended to physically attend a psychologist’s consultation.
Computer therapy moves computers from being simply the channel to being active agents in the process of interacting with the person.
It is based on the use of software that adapts to what the person is doing and provides consistent feedback accordingly. In a way, they are similar to interactive self-help books, with the difference that in the latter the message is much more important (because it is the only thing offered) and that in computer therapy the most important thing is the real-time interaction with the person .
As in psychotherapy, in computerized therapy the person interacting with the patient does not speak more than the patient (something that would happen with self-help), but rather his or her service consists of asking the questions and reactions that make the other person change in a psychological sense, for example, through cognitive restructuring in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Undoubtedly, having a computer program capable of adapting to what you are told can be interesting as a form of self-help : instead of self-administering fragments of text from a book, we use as a service a program that allows us to express ourselves by reflecting on what is happening to us.
This means, for example, that this service can almost always be used, simply by turning on a computer, and that this is a relatively cheap service compared to psychotherapy sessions. However, these two factors do not make this option a substitute for consultation. Let’s see why
Why a computer cannot be a psychologist
The first thing to be clear about when it comes to understanding what computer therapy is is that a computer program, at least with the technology available today, will always have a rather limited ability to adapt and learn from what a real person tells you through language.
What characterises us when we speak is that we use words and phrases very flexibly , using the same term in many possible ways and making it change its meaning depending on the context.
The computer program behind a form of computerized therapy works through a decision tree, that is, a sequence of actions that is already programmed in advance and that at certain points is divided into several parallel paths, just like in the “choose your own adventure” books.
It is this simple fact that makes computerized therapy incomparable to real psychotherapy and therefore closer to self-help: the computer cannot understand the whole range of a person’s thoughts, feelings and actions ; it will only interpret them on the basis of a very limited processing scheme. The computer will “force” the information it collects about us to fit its predefined patterns, whereas a psychotherapist is sensitive enough to adapt his or her behavior in entirely original ways.
This capacity, by the way, is not basically proper to therapists: it belongs to human beings in general.
How to use the sessions with a computer?
In conclusion, computerized therapy can be an interesting option as a complement to real therapy, always keeping in mind that computers cannot empathize or “read between the lines” what a real human being does. That is why we can understand this service as a more developed form of self-help in which a certain margin is left for the person’s participation.
Despite the fact that this option is very cheap because a computer program can be sold many times with the minimum cost using the same intellectual property, the time and space to coincide with a real-life psychotherapist is still important so that both the actions and the mental processes of the patient can be reciprocated by a mind as complex and changing as yours.