When it comes to our mental health, human conversation is the most natural form of communication. And when it comes to living in the 21st century, technology plays a central role in this communication.
But most of us still interact with our technology through a keyboard and mouse, and most of us rely on hardware – whether it’s our phones or our laptops – which usually only lasts. three to five years.
So what if we could use a more natural form of interaction to communicate with computers, which is also healthier and creates less electronic waste?
The conversational revolution
Conversation systems are nothing new.
These systems are computer programs for interacting with humans, often made up of many different technological components, including natural language processing and machine learning.
You’ve probably used them before. Siri has become the easiest way for many people to find the answer to a boring question. And other people almost see Alexa as family.
Conversation systems allow people to access information through natural language. This means that people with visual impairments, dyslexia or limited literacy skills can more easily access information without having to use a screen.
Renewed research in conversational systems, coupled with the emergence of smart devices, has increased the way this technology is used. Not only can these systems perform simple commands – like turning on your lights or monitoring your solar system – but they are also used in healthcare. For example, they can be used to identify cardiac arrests over the phone.
Conversational systems in health
While many people may think of conversational systems as new, they have actually been around for some time. And they’ve been in the health field for quite some time as well.
One of the first functional conversational systems was ELIZA, created by MIT professor Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid-1960s. ELIZA could respond to user input that mimics interactions between a patient and a therapist.
Today, our more sophisticated systems can help people choose healthier lifestyles, promote immunizations, or help healthcare professionals.
And it’s in the healthcare sector where conversational systems could really make sense, especially now, as the global COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how our healthcare demands are outstripping supply.
Globally, the pandemic has disrupted health care chains that attempt to deliver life-saving health services and interventions. He highlighted the shortage of medical personnel in the world; more than 40 percent of all countries in the world have less than ten doctors available per 10,000 population.
And in the field of mental health, it is emphasized that there are not enough mental health professionals to meet the demand, especially in remote or developing areas.
Health engineering (y) e-coaches
Conversation systems have potential in mental health.
Take the Woebot. This system (or agent) promises a “simulated supportive conversation that encourages authentic disclosure and makes therapy radically accessible.” It aims to help manage mental health through conversations with mood tracking or games.
These officers can not only discuss the mental state of people but, in terms of training for the medical professions, they can also mimic a patient’s actual conversation.
And then there is e-coaching.
Conversational e-coaches aim to motivate patients to adopt healthier behaviors. NESTORE, for example, is a “personalized coaching system to support healthy aging” which will offer activities and services tailored to “your personality, your environment and your state of health”.
If we consider the potential impact of conversational systems on mental health care, these systems are unlikely to replace physicians. And all conversational systems must have a back-up solution when it comes to handling emergencies. Human support should be part of any strategy for dealing with complex situations, for example when there is a high risk of self-harm.
But conversational systems can change the way doctors analyze patient information or develop a personalized treatment plan. And future physicians may find that these systems act as a decision support tool.
However, before conversational systems can play a larger role in health, we need to better understand the long-term implications of the technology, study the degree of empathy these systems should show, and even understand the impact of things like health conversation emojis.
Data privacy is also a critical concern for conversational health systems.
All conversation data must be anonymized at every point through which information passes, including machine learning, but also GPS locations, Bluetooth signals or WiFi connections.
It is important to note that some conversations may be spoken rather than typed and recorded for transcription, which means that there is a risk that a person could be identified. Thus, a clear understanding of data privacy is vital.
Fight electronic waste with conversational systems
During COVID-19, more of us became aware of the health crises faced by many people around the world and the issue of equitable access to health services.
But at the same time, the pandemic has raised awareness among the public about the importance of nature and the impacts of climate change. In fact, a recent global survey found that the pandemic has increased environmental awareness, with 70% of people saying they are now more aware that human activity threatens the climate.
And electronic waste – or e-waste – contributes significantly to the problem. In 2019 alone, there were 53 million tonnes of electronic waste.
Conversation systems have great potential to reduce our electronic waste. Instead of using a keyboard, mouse, trackpad or an ever-increasing number of cables to communicate with our computers, conversational e-coaches can be integrated into existing hardware, like our phones.
This simple step can reduce the need for additional electronic equipment or obsolete hardware. So, before you update your latest electronic device, chat with yourself to see if it will make you happier.
Paying attention to our sanity is essential, and an increasing number of conversational systems are becoming available and will potentially offer help to those in need. But being aware of the environmental impacts of your technology could also help the planet.
Both exhibition and experimentation, MENTAL is a welcoming place to confront societal prejudices and stereotypes about mental health. It features 21 works by local and international artists and research collaborators who explore different ways of being, surviving and connecting with each other. Opening in July 2021, book your free tickets now.
Banner: Hello Machine – Hello Human (detail) by Rachel Hanlon: Installation view, MENTAL: Head Inside, Science Gallery Melbourne / Photo: Alan Weedon