Newsletter 614 – Robot Counseling (with video)

human-looking robot 2Robots have never much influenced me. Of course we’re all aware of the role of robots on assembly lines, in routine cleaning activities, or in search and rescue operations where humans cannot go. Movies built around robot characters have never interested me, but my curiosity was triggered by a series of featured articles in June 2015 Harvard Business Review. Built around the theme of human-machine interaction in business, the articles describe the impact and effectiveness of computers and robots that:

  • learn and utilize basic knowledge and skills with extraordinary speed,
  • replace the need for many skilled workers,
  • often know much more than any one human being could know or remember,
  • “are beginning to make inroads in areas involving creativity, dexterity, and emotional perceptiveness,” and
  • even can be used as employee supervisors (one HBR article is titled “When your Boss Wears Metal Pants.”)

The magazine shows how robots and people can collaborate and do things that neither could do on their own. And there’s evidence that robots can be more influential and are more trusted when they look like humans (like the robot pictured. To see it move and talk, click the link at the end of this post.) This caused me to wonder how robots – can be used in ministry, management, leadership and even counseling.

Some interesting Internet searches followed. They revealed, among other examples, how robots can be used in guidance counseling, physical therapy, improving mood and quality of life in dementia patients, providing therapy for autistic children,assisting students with learning difficulties and even doing basic marriage counseling and psychotherapy. Robots can be good diagnosticians when they are programmed to pick up verbal and movement cues that can help diagnose different psychological disorders.

Probably none of us is into robot therapy, robot leadership or robot development, but research in these areas may point to interesting and potentially useful alliances between humans and machines. Potential ethical implications of all this will arise when sophisticated machines are used to impact other human beings maybe in destructive, harmful ways. All of this can have potential for care-giving, leading and people-developing. I have wondered if Jesus or the early churches would have cared about this? Should we? Please comment.


  1. (This comment is made with humour.)
    My brief encounters with professional counsellors seemed somewhat like what I imagine would be interaction with a robot.
    They were apparently following some humanistic theory about normal and deviant speech behaviour, posing memorised queries, trying to empathize when a little incompetent sympathy might have helped.
    They may have once been moved by compassion but became educated and were trained to follow professional protocols.
    The counselling experience proved so dehumanising, that I left and sorted through stuff on my own, saving some 1000s of pounds in fees.


  2. Galen. I love this. Thanks for your note about humor but in many ways you are right on. Too many counselors are just like you described. I went through the whole process, as you know, but as I got closer to the end of my training I could not wait to get out and bring in some warmth and personality that I felt had been taken from me.
    The profession talks a lot about “evidence-based-methods” and I see great value in this. But I argue that even research can reflect who does the research and where it is done. Evidenced based, as determined by research in the US may not apply completely to the UK. After I was a counseling/psychology student in Canada I took a year in London and discovered a number of different (that does not mean better or worse, just different) cultural perspectives that I had never before realized existed.
    It is terrible when counseling is dehumanizing, but this happens, including with Christian counselors who are so intent on confronting sin and quoting Bible verses that they lose sight of compassion and love. This could seem like robot-like caring in some ways.


  3. When I read Galen’s comment I felt sadness and anger. A profound piece of advice I received in my training and development as a counselor was this: The most valuable tool/ intervention/skill I offer clients is my self. If my self, everything that makes who I am, is diminished or bypassed for whatever reason, then perhaps my clients will be robbed of the most important variable for healing and change. In light of this, I have many mixed responses to the idea of AI replacing human beings as counselors. I can conceive of specific diagnoses wherein AI may provide an advantage. Working with substance abusers/addicts comes to mind. A robot won’t struggle with their own human reactivity and frustration around relapse or evasive behavior, which could provide stability and consistency, but it may also diminish motivation to change. Sometimes the reaction from those who love us, their pain and suffering in the wake of our destructive behavior is a powerful catalyst needed for change to happen. The thousands of nuances that take place between human beings seem way beyond something a robot could replicate. Perhaps that’s the point. Perhaps I think too highly of my profession!


    1. Kati, thank you so much for your thoughtful post. It was well written and thought-provoking.

      After writing my newsletter I read an article in “APA Monitor on Psychology,” June 2015 issue, describing how robots (in the article they are like pets) can stimulate behavior change, remind people to practice skills or stick with a weight loss program, administer some testing tools, and other more routine services. In this way they are like self-help books. They also can be programmed to help people with autism and collect some diagnostic information.

      The Monitor article quotes former APA President Alan Kazdin who notes that a large percentage of people have mental health issues and no treatment. Kazdin is among those doing research to determine whether and how robots can be used in our care-giving activities.

      But this seems different than therapy. I agree that the person of the therapist or other care-giver is critical, especially in dealing with deeper issues that evolve in therapy. As you know, there is overwhelming research evidence confirming the value of a caring relationship. At best robots can supplement this but no robot can be made fully-human.

      One more observation: Kati, there is nothing wrong with thinking highly of your profession. You clearly take your work seriously and are committed to doing it well. More power to you.


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