Chatbots and Friends

The British Broadcasting Corporation recently ran A chatbot pulled me out of a 'really dark place'. It struck me for two reasons: the invasion of technology continues, and the time we spend on our screens is intriguing. 
The story focuses on a cancer survivor who experienced emotional issues following her diagnosis and the death of "her best friend." She complained of diminished motivation, and chose to turn to an online "mental health chatbot, called Vivibot." This is an application offered by a "social community for people affected by cancer," and is one of many chatbots said to be offered for mental health. 
While this cancer survivor lauded the bot, even those who design them admit that such applications "cannot treat clinical depression or clinical anxiety." They stress that these are not a replacement for "human interaction of any sort." The story quotes others who are critical of the bots. One says that "They make you believe that, if you just look on your phone and do a couple of self-help kind of things, that's going to take the place of the healing nature of a healthy relationship." 
One of the criticisms in this respect is the lack of "non-verbal communication" that is employed when people interact in person. There is a perception that the "non-verbal" element is important in our interaction and perceptions. Despite this, the technology is said to be increasingly popular. Certainly, this may be driven in part by generational acceptance of technology. But, some even cite "research (that) suggests that people are more honest with robots than with fellow humans. That seems supportive of an acceptance that is beyond generational. 
The technological evolution is expected to continue, and some project that "artificial intelligence (AI) might be advanced enough to have a deep understanding of human mental health." Some predict "human-level AI in 2029," though it is only getting started in medicine. There is a perception that AI is coming to medicine, is suited to medicine, and is an inevitability. The real question seems to be whether we will relate to the technology and find solace in it for mental health issues. Thus, the implication is not whether it comes, but instead will it replace or enhance human therapists? 
About the same time as that story, various news sources broke word of proposed legislation against technology: Vermont bill would ban cellphone use by anyone younger than 21. The sponsor of this legislation concedes that it will not become law. In fact, he was quoted saying "I wouldn't probably vote for it myself." But, he seems to espouse a belief that we are too focused as a society on these screens and apps. Certainly, while driving that has been deemed to be a sufficient problem to drive legislation. 
There are critics of the Vermont proposal, cited by news organizations such as CNN. Some note the parallelism in the proposed bill and other bills that seek to limit access to weapons. The sponsor seemingly admits that his bill is intended to highlight conversations and legislation about gun possession by those under 21. But it is possible that there are arguments against children having cellular phones. The Very Well Family site concludes that this is appropriately a parenting decision, rather than a legislative one. 
There are a variety of complaints about screen time generally. Rally Health summarizes connections between screen time and various health conditions. The concerns included promotion of a sedentary lifestyle, the body's production of dopamine and melatonin. In short, there are reasons perhaps for concern. If these concerns prove valid, there may be room for discussion as to whether we are sufficient benefited by health apps to justify the screen time that we would amass in using them. 
In the end, the evidence seems to suggest that we thrive on personal interaction. As technology permeates our society, technology encourages our isolation. We order goods instead of shopping. We appear for hearings or mediations by telephone. We send an ultimatum warning by email or text instead of discussing (interactive conversation, to "consult") a motion. And now, when we find that isolation troubling, a segment of our population does not turn outward to social settings, but instead to still more technology in the form of interactive bots. 
Timothy Leary encouraged us in the 1960s to "turn on, tune in, drop out." Perhaps in that age, this was sound advice. But the converse seems a better adage for today. It seems we would all benefit if we could instead "turn off, tune out, and drop in." There is value in human interaction. We should strive to find it, to engage our professional peers and friends in an interactive and personal manner. Our technology-enabled isolation is not healthy and the solution is not more screen time. 
The cure for isolation is engagement and interaction. We have to work to re-establish it. We must all remember that the "a" in AI is "artificial." While apps may help us, I suggest actually being with people, interacting with people, will help us all more.
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    About The Author

    • Judge David Langham

      David Langham is the Deputy Chief Judge of Compensation Claims for the Florida Office of Judges of Compensation Claims at the Division of Administrative Hearings. He has been involved in workers’ compensation for over 25 years as an attorney, an adjudicator, and administrator. He has delivered hundreds of professional lectures, published numerous articles on workers’ compensation in a variety of publications, and is a frequent blogger on Florida Workers’ Compensation Adjudication. David is a founding director of the National Association of Workers’ Compensation Judiciary and the Professional Mediation Institute, and is involved in the Southern Association of Workers’ Compensation Administrators (SAWCA) and the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commissions (IAIABC). He is a vocal advocate of leveraging technology and modernizing the dispute resolution processes of workers’ compensation.

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