The impending arrival of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in our day-to-day lives has begun to perplex everyone from computer scientists to philosophers to government figures – and understandably so. Many are worried, perhaps rightly, that computers are on the path to taking over.
But is the proliferation of so-called ‘smart machines’ necessarily a bad thing? A cursory look shows that computers are simply better than we are at many things, so it makes sense to let them get on with it. For instance, the management of electricity grids is handled far more efficiently by a machine which can run millions of comparisons and calculations a second in order to work out the best way to distribute energy.
One area which it is hard to imagine machines taking over involves mental health and personal care. Empathy is a characteristic which shows we are alive – perhaps it is the single most important of all. A rock can’t display empathy as its comrades are melted into lava by a volcano. A reservoir cannot empathise with a nearby lake that is drying up. To empathise you must be alive – something which computers are not, by any current definition.
For this reason, it has been seen as impossible that machines could help us take care of our mental health. But is this about to change?
Whilst not in the same league as a true AI, the idea of a ‘digital companion’ has been growing in popularity in technology circles for a while now, and a new software product called Maslo could well revolutionise the field.
Maslo is described by its creators as being able to scan for human emotion and react accordingly. The goal is for Maslo to help people take a moment out of their day and ask questions in order to help people to acknowledge their feelings, and hopefully take action on any negative thoughts which come out.
The software has been described as “friendly and earnest”, sounding genuinely interested in the answers to the questions it poses. Even if it cannot reply spontaneously, sometimes it is enough to be given the time and silence to just talk. Cristina Poindexter, founder of Maslo, is aiming to “build technology to help people grow as a person, and that starts by encouraging self-expression in multiple forms”.
This goal is resulting in a system which resembles digital assistants like Siri or Alexa, but is less interested in helping you make phone calls and more interested in making you feel valued as a person. Maslo is not meant to be therapy, but it is designed to be therapeutic by offering a space for people to talk honestly. Even if it is in private, that sounds like it could be a valuable thing.
What is for sure is that the future is going to be particularly interesting. If computer systems are being developed which can exist in such a personal space as personal feelings, then who knows how far the technology could be taken. No one could have anticipated Uber when Google Maps was introduced, and AI will be the same.