How Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation will impact the workplace and business is getting increasing attention. AI and automation will not only eliminate jobs but will transform every aspect of how organizations function and how work gets accomplished.

At the same time, Virtual Reality (VR) and gaming applications for business and personal lives are growing in leaps and bounds. While most people may see the impact on blue collar, or service industry work, it’s clear white collars jobs will also be affected.

In their research on “An Executive’s Guide to Machine Learning”, the consulting firm McKinsey concludes machine learning will empower it to arm coaches, speakers, and writers with more than just descriptive insights and predictive measures — it will begin to play a major role in the self improvement process itself.

In 2013, Oxford University researchers In a published paper titled: “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerization”  C.B. Frey and M.A. Osborne, researchers at Oxford University, created a model that calculates the probability of substituting a worker in a given sector. Frey and Osborne conclude machines may replace 47% of active workers in the future. Of 1,896 prominent scientists, analysts, and engineers questioned in a recent Pew survey on the future of jobs, 48% of them said the AI revolution will be a permanent job killer on a vast scale. The Bank of England has warned that within the coming decades as many as 80 million jobs in the U.S. could be replaced by robots.

After years of both improvements and hype, machine learning has hit the vertical part of the exponential curve. Computers are now replacing skilled practitioners in fields such as architecture, finance, aviation, law, medicine, and resource industries—and changing the nature of work in a broad range of other jobs and professions. Deep Knowledge Ventures, a Hong Kong venture-capital firm, has gone so far as to appoint a decision-making algorithm to its board of directors.

AI in Sports Coaching

Artificial intelligence in sport is also rapidly developing. Football, or as it’s known in North America, soccer is the world’s sport. Bayern Munich has partnered with software giant SAP to analyze soccer players’ performance. All Premier League football/soccer stadiums in the UK have digital cameras that track every player. ChyronHego’s system is installed in over 125 stadiums and is used in more than 2,000 games per year. The data provides insight for coaches to evaluate player performance and track metrics such as distance run, speeds, stamina, pass completion, team formations, etc. And finally, an Australian company, Catapult Sports, has a player’s tracking system based upon Global Navigation Satellite System and they work with more than 450 teams worldwide, including Chelsea, Real Madrid and Brazilian national team.

AI in HR and Sales

AI is being used in both sales and recruiting. If the AI program Einstein can determine what kind of company is the perfect customer for a company, why can’t an AI system determine who is the perfect candidate for a job?  Watson, IBM’s version of AI, has been used to help people look for intelligent life; decide what is the best wine for them to drink; helps retailers understand customer’s buying habits; and helps doctors determine what is wrong with their patients.’s Einstein is used to help predict which customers will buy more, when a deal is more likely to close and which customer is likely drop out. It is imbedded into their CRM and is usable for any user who pays the subscription.

Rob May, writing in the Recruiter, says AI can be used not only for recruitment but also workflow analysis. He says AI will be able to determine the proper course of training for someone, and it is also possible to use it to help determine the proper mix of insurance and healthcare coverage.

AI in the Helping Professions

Videoconferencing and standard telephone technologies to deliver psychotherapy have been well validated. Web-based interventions have shown efficacy across a broad range of mental health outcomes. Mobile technologies have received limited attention for mental health outcomes. Virtual reality has shown good efficacy for anxiety and pediatric disorders.

An AI application, Amelia, created by IPSoft, optimizes organizations’ business and IT processes. Amelia is an avatar that employs natural language processing techniques to communicate. By using specially developed intelligence algorithms, Amelia can analyze intent and even sense emotions to help answer queries and solve problems. This means that, in a call center, for example, absorbing a mixture of instruction manuals and guidelines, Amelia can be trained to answer customer emails and answer calls. So, if Amelia understands the query, it will be able to take all of the necessary steps to solve the problem. If Amelia doesn’t know the answer, it will scan the web or corporate intranet for help. Only if it is unable to find the right information will it ask a human for assistance, before observing the response and learning from it for next time. Amelia was first revealed in autumn 2014, and is currently being trialed at a handful of companies such as Shell Oil, Accenture and NTT Group.

Mental health and self-improvement services are accessible via mobile apps. The newest crop of these apps increasingly integrates Artificial Intelligence capabilities similar to Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. These intelligent systems will make our devices come to life, taking on new functions as our personal virtual ‘psychotherapist’ or life coach.

Virtual Reality Therapy

Though the self-improvement industry is unregulated with actual numbers hard to come by, publicity would indicate that the business is booming. The same is true of the traditional mental health profession, whose ranks of counselors are expected to grow 36% by 2020.

Virtual realities have existed for millennia. Humans discontented with the world around them have created fantasy universes and alternative realities in their heads. Inside, everyone hides whole worlds that are both invisible and intangible.

Today’s virtual realities are defined by technology--computer games, avatars and VR headsets. What new technology now offers, is not so different from the worlds we can create in our imagination — they are just a way to make them visible, shareable, more immersive and sometimes even touchable. This, however, changes something profound about the way we experience alternative realities.

Virtual realities provide the opportunity not only to be somewhere else but also to be someone else. Scientists who have used VR avatars have found characters played in virtual reality can change behavior in real life. This has been called the Proteus Effect which makes players take on qualities of their avatars. For example, players who play superheroes in virtual reality are more likely to help others in the real world later.

Virtual reality can release an individual’s potential. University of Barcelona researchers conducted an experiment using virtual reality headsets. Participants entered a room where they were supposed to describe a personal problem. Afterwards, they switched bodies with the avatar that was facing them and gave themselves advice. Some just incorporated a duplicate of themselves. Others were sent into the body of Sigmund Freud. The participants incorporating the Viennese psychotherapist gave themselves much more effective counseling. The illusion of being in the body of Freud, made them already feel that they had more expertise to hand out advice.

Neuroscientists are experimenting with technology to relieve suffering such as trauma, depression, and destructive self-criticism. One cutting-edge example involves using virtual reality goggles (such as Oculus) to retrain the traumatized brain to create positive, healthy experiences instead of negative ones. A Forbes magazine article about neuroscience describes how a virtual reality experience can reduce depression.  Researchers happily found in this first-of-its-kind study that people experienced significant relief when they created and identified with a personal avatar who expressed compassion and comfort for an upset child. They concluded: “In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.… A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical.”

Here are some examples of how AI and VR have teamed up to provide therapy services:

  • Virtual Therapy Connect provides utilizing own proprietary HIPAA compliant web-based communications platform that enables therapists to connect from their Virtual Therapy Connect Online Office with clients for secure video therapy sessions and secure real-time online text chat sessions;
  • Talk To An Expert which provides therapist, counselor, coach, consultant, trainer, services online;
  • The Online Therapy Institute which offers training and consultancy to mental health practitioners, coaches and organizations worldwide who have an interest in using technology to deliver services;
  • The Virtual Reality Medical Center which uses virtual reality exposure therapy (3-dimensional computer simulation) in combination with physiological monitoring and feedback to treat panic and anxiety disorders;
  • The Virtually Better Clinic in Atlanta providing an after care option of treatment using Second Life, the popular virtual world program;
  • Mobilyze, a digital device app developed by Northwestern’s School of Medicine, which monitors a person’s location and social interactions and alerts them of signs of depression;
  • MoodKit, an app developed by clinical psychologist, helps the user identify and change unhealthy thoughts and chart the user’s state of mind;
  • SimSensei, an online virtual therapist developed by the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies, has an animated avatar which asks the user questions while analyzing non-verbal cues such as body language and facial expressions to help diagnose anxiety;
  • Skip Rizzo and his colleagues at the University of Southern California’s Clinical VR Research Group have projects using virtual reality aimed at psychological disorders, PTSD, pain, cognitive assessment, rehabilitation and virtual patient clinical training;
  • The app Sosh is designed to help children and young adults improve their social skills. Primarily targeting individuals with Asperger’s Syndrome, the app features exercises that help users manage their behavior, understand feelings and connect with others.

Today, these systems are still in early stages, but as technology further progresses, it might become possible to 'converse' with Artificial Intelligence beyond simple voice commands. AI systems could even possess ‘emotion sensing’ capabilities enabling them to detect users’ emotions and intents based on their tone of voice and speech patterns, making interactions richer and more effective. Theoretically, such capabilities would make it possible to develop AI systems that mimic interactions with a real psychotherapist or life coach.

These systems could gather a wealth of data on our behavior by tracking our movements via GPS and by monitoring our behavior and our social interactions online. Mobile-based AI systems could even be integrated with devices worn directly on the body – similar to Nike’s Fuel Band- measuring our activity levels and our biofeedback information. Based on our data, theses systems could work with us to correct bad habits, provide personal development advice, and generally help us to improve our lives. In the future it might become common have one or several virtual companions 'living' on our cell phones.

Interacting with 'humanized' technology in the context of therapy and coaching will turn our devices into 'identity accessories': they will become tools to actively sculpt our behavior and identity. If our devices become ‘alive’ via AI technology, acting as a mediator for self-discovery and self-realization, it might have far-reaching consequences for how we relate to our devices. A new category of ‘living’ technology will emerge, taking on new roles as companion, confidant, and ‘friend’. These artificial intelligences will be with us whenever we need them, keeping us company, supporting us, and making us feel secure and cared for in an increasingly complex and erratic world.

Virtual Coaches

Virtual coaches are an example of captology, a word based on the acronym CAPT, which stands for Computers As Persuasive Technology which can be socially interactive.

A virtual coach is a social actor that develops a social relationship with the user and thereby tries to change that person’s behavior or attitude. Health related applications are a very promising domain for virtual coaches, because attitude and behavior change are often important objectives in medical treatment.

By using virtual coaches everybody can receive coaching without the need to increase the number of human coaches. Developing a good virtual coach is complex, time consuming and therefore expensive. However, after this initial investment it is relatively inexpensive to deploy this coach amongst many people for many hours. This in contrast to human coaches, whose availability is limited and charge a substantial hourly rate. Because of this, virtual coaches are certainly more cost-effective than human coaches when used on a large scale. Besides increasing availability and reducing costs, flexibility is also an advantage of replacing human coaches by virtual ones. Because access to a virtual coach is not limited by a strict consultation schedule, virtual coaches can be contacted any time of the day for any period of time.

Another advantage is the presence of a lifelike character in a virtual learning environment which has a strong positive effect on the user’s learning experience. Because both building a social relationship and learning are part of working with a coach, it is a good idea to make a virtual coach embodied.

Here are some examples of Virtual Coaching:

  • The mobile app Mindbloom is a social gaming platform that enables users to motivate each other to improve their behavior, reach their life goals and generally be more successful in life.  Users can send each other inspirational messages, track and compare their progress, and congratulate each other to their achievements such as a pay raise, a new workout achievement, or a new romantic relationship. The Mindbloom platform hence “crowdsources” life coaching services from one’s group of friends, in effect.
  • Virtual Life Coach, which provides coaching in a virtual environment.
  • A virtual coach “Shelley,” developed by Healthwise, a non-profit that designs corporate patient education materials, uses conversations to help the user make decisions and change behavior;
  • A study on weight loss from the Center for Connected Health found that overweight participants who had access to an animated, virtual coach providing personalized feedback lost significantly more weight than participants trying to lose weight without virtual coaching.

How Gaming Could be Used for Therapy and Coaching

In her provocative book, Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal argues, “Reality compared to games is broken…Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are opting out of reality for larger and larger chunks of time.” McGonigal contends computer and video games are “fulfilling genuine human needs that the real world is currently unable to satisfy. Games are providing rewards that reality is not. They are teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not. They are bringing us together in ways that reality is not.” She argues we need a plan for determining how games will impact our real societies and our real lives.

With respect to the issue of therapists and coaches, McGonigal says game developers know better than anyone else how to inspire extreme effort and hard work. They know how to facilitate cooperation and collaboration at previously unimaginable scales. All are 21st century skills that will be needed by everyone. The essence of games are they provide a specific goal or outcome, a feedback system, and voluntary participation, all elements of good therapy and coaching. All of the neurological and physiological systems that underlie happiness—our attention systems, our reward center, our motivation systems, our emotion and memory centers,--are fully activated by game play. If only real life and work had the same effect, McGonigal.

What about the effectiveness of virtual therapists and coaches?

The biggest question, of course, is how effective are virtual coaches or therapists? Here’s some research that may help to answer that question.

Cristina Botell and her colleagues at the Universitat de Valencia in Spain published a research study in the journal Clinical Psychology and Neuroscience  examined the efficacy of using virtual reality in psychotherapy. They concluded: “Compared to the ‘traditional’ treatments, VR has many advantages (eg., it is a protected environment for the patient, he/she can re-experience many times the feared situation, etc.).”.

Alessandra Gorini and her colleagues published a research report in the Journal of Medial Internet Research on the use of virtual reality in therapy. They concluded: “We suggest that compared with conventional telehealth applications such as emails, chat, and videoconferences, the interaction between real and 3-D virtual worlds may convey greater feelings of presence, facilitate the clinical communication process, positively influence group processes and cohesiveness in group-based therapies, and foster higher levels of interpersonal trust between therapists and patients.”

In a study by Youjeong Kim and S. Shyam Sundar and published in the journal Computers and Human Behavior, the authors argued that “user-created self-reflecting avatars made salient different mental images of their bodies based on whether they customized their avatars to look like their actual or ideal selves, and consequently influenced their perceptions toward their physical body” with positive consequences participants health outcomes.”

A study by clinical researchers at the University of Zurich looked at whether online psychology and conventional face-to-face therapy are equally effective. The results for online therapy even exceeded their expectations. They concluded: “in the medium term, online psychotherapy even yields better results. Our study is evidence that psychotherapeutic services on  the internet are an effective supplement to conventional therapeutic care.”

A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that real change in patients came from collaborative discussion or “motivational interviewing.” Instead of the a therapist diagnosing and telling the patient what medication or treatment to take the therapist asks what changes and goals the patient is willing to make. This may account for the growing popularity of coaching, where the focus is predominantly on the client taking responsibility for action.

Clearly, the appeal and demand for self-improvement beyond therapeutic services for disorders and self-monitoring products is here, and digital tools can be a valuable supplement to face-to-face traditional sources. But one has to wonder, with the advances in digital technology and gaming, whether your coach or therapist of the future will be an avatar, talking to your avatar.


There is no question that the rapid development of AI, VR systems and gaming will have wide and deep application to our personal lives and the workplace, and that will include occupations such as therapists and coaches. The question is not if, but when.

Copyright, 2016 by Ray Williams. This article may not be reproduced or published without permission from the author. If you share it, please give author credit and do not remove embedded links.

To read more of my posts on this blog, click here.

Join me on Twitter: @raybwilliams

I also write at The Financial Post, and Fulfillment Daily and 

To read more about how leaders can use mindfulness practices to transform chaotic workplaces, read my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces.

Ray Williams
Source: Ray Williams

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