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AI Chatbot Provides Mental-health Support in China

A Chinese Artificial Intelligence (AI) found that many people in Los Angeles, United States, were suffering from poor mental health, and they benefited from involvement in support groups. Later, he wondered whether AI technology might be put to good use in this field, providing psychological support to those in need. When he returned to China, he built the deep learning laboratory in east China’s Zhejiang Province to develop an AI-assisted chatbot. The cutting-edge app has been designed to provide free 24/7 psychological counselling to anyone who wants to talk.

The scientist then found out what people with psychological issues need most. To this end, he sought the advice of both patients and professionals. Many patients with depression may have a sudden emotional breakdown. Without timely intervention from a counsellor, this may be very dangerous. A lot of people with psychological issues are limited by counselling fees and the shortage of professional counsellors. Hence, he made the chatbot that can understand people’s complaints and empathise with them, while making use of long-term memory.

The scientist then formed two teams at his deep learning lab. One is the R&D team formed by senior engineers from tech companies, as well as computing and AI elites from top universities. The other team consists of professional counsellors who have specialities in dealing with emotional distress and psychological trauma, as well as those with long experience in narrative therapy and family therapy.

The team members have been working to grow the app and they have made rapid progress, and an initial version of Xiaotian was tested on campus in September 2020. Now, more than 3,000 people have it on their phones, and users can engage in counselling via text and voice messages. Due to an upcoming update, users will soon be able to have a 50-minute conversation with the chatbot.

The AI chatbot can simulate the human brain and has incorporated skills employed by professional counsellors dealing with real cases. With its emotional computing and empathy module, it can understand emotions, giving the impression of a warm-hearted conversation. The chatbot can listen, analyse, reason, and help people clarify their true feelings through professional deconstruction skills. It can guide the discussion, ease the mood and keep the conversation from coming to a dead end.

According to the researchers, every user is provided with their own personal ID. Much like a close and trusted friend, the chatbot stores the user’s troubles in its memory and keeps their secrets. It also conducts ongoing evaluations of the psychological support that it gives, and decides on the direction of future guidance based on the evaluation results. If it encounters a problem that cannot be solved, it can give early warnings and ask professional human consultants to step in.

When the chatbot finds users with serious psychological issues or mental disorders, it will recommend a psychiatric hospital for diagnosis and treatment. For emergency cases, it will start the corresponding crisis-intervention measures.

The app cannot replace human counsellors, but it can help people when they need an emotional outlet, support and company late at night or in the early hours. At this time, people often become desperate, viewing life as pointless and contemplating suicide. Having an outlet of this sort 24 hours a day is of great value, particularly since telephone crisis hotlines are often busy at night.

The chatbot is still in development. Currently, about 30% of the answers provided by the app come directly from its AI capability, while the remaining 70% originate from human psychological counsellors.

According to the scientist, the chatbot is still at the training-model stage. Due to the limited number of counsellors to provide suggestions and users to interact with it, the app is still going through kindergarten. With more data, it will become more intelligent and professional. The goal for Xiaotian is to provide AI counselling services for 10 million people over the next five years.

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