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On Mr. Roboto’s Couch – Will Machines Become Our Counselors? Part I

Is it possible to design a machine to provide therapy?

Once there were robots...

When I was growing up in the 70s, I was glued to Isaac Asimov's science fiction books and fascinated by the philosophy surrounding the robots' man-made psychology. Asimov's stories reflects a time where people were fascinated by machines, and envisioned technology as something visible and tangible: hardware. The zenith of such technological accomplishments would therefore have to be machines that are not only intelligent, conscious and experience feelings and emotions. They would also have to be human-looking and walk on two feet. Kind of like Data from Star Trek or Mr. Roboto from the Styx musical.

The new software robots...

The reason we don't see green tin cans hopping around us and serving us drinks is that reality took a slightly different turn. The advances of Artificial Intelligence during the 80s and 90s took place alongside a sharp shift in technology from dedicated machines into general purpose computers. Computers are "empty" and perform whatever functions are programmed into them using software. This revolution resulted in the creation of invisible, formless robots or "bots": software implementing mathematical and statistical methods that run silently on distant servers, and affect our daily lives without walking around making R2D2 sounds.

But robots do serve us all the time...

Still, it's a machine suggesting to us what we should buy (Amazon), what we should listen to (Pandora, last.fm), and who we should marry (eHarmony, Match.com). So - is it possible to design a machine to provide life advice and perhaps even therapy? Well - it already is happening.

Part II of this post will describe some of these online tools. In the meantime, please comment and share your thoughts. Do you think machines can provide useful and actionable advice to humans?

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