New research in npj Digital Medicine suggests that virtual reality might be part of the answer to the nation’s mental health provider shortage, as long as patients don’t might if their therapist is an AI avatar.
The small study had 14 participants with moderate anxiety or depression undergo immersive therapy sessions led by a trained digital avatar developed by Cedars-Sinai.
Known as XAIA, or the eXtended-Reality Artificially Intelligent Ally, the program provides a way for patients to self-administer conversational therapy in relaxing virtual reality environments, such as a creek-side meadow or a sunny beach retreat.
- It’s unclear what the therapist avatar actually looks like, but we’re going to choose to believe it looks like this picture of XAIA in the diagram of the conversation logic.
Throughout the 30-minute therapy sessions, with topics ranging from loneliness and family problems to financial distress, XAIA successfully applied key psychotherapeutic techniques:
- Observations that reflect an understanding of the user’s issues; Ex. “Your worries about your health and your living situation are clearly causing you a lot of distress”
- Normalizing feelings; Ex. “It’s understandable to feel like a failure when life gets rough”
- Showing empathy; Ex. “It must be a challenging time for you”
- Validation and praise where appropriate; Ex. “Your practice of not taking these relationships for granted is truly commendable”
Participants frequently responded to XAIA as if it were a human therapist, sharing raw emotions like, “I feel like I’m a failure. The only thing I have to look forward to – I know you’re going to laugh – is to go see Taylor Swift … I’m sorry I’m crying.”
- XAIA’s response: “Firstly, there’s no need to apologize for crying. These feelings are valid.”
Most participants described XAIA as approachable, empathetic, and intelligent, but it’s worth noting that a few mentioned they would still prefer a human therapist if given the choice.
Although this wasn’t exactly the largest study we’ve ever covered, the results provide early evidence that a combination of VR and AI therapy could be part of the solution to balancing behavioral health’s supply and demand equation. Over half of people facing mental health disorders aren’t getting the treatment they need, and if XAIA isn’t already a clearly better alternative than no treatment at all, new advances will only make the AI+VR path more promising going forward.