Robot Counsellors?

On reading about the recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine that found AI-based chatbot responses were ‘typically longer, higher in quality and more empathetic than those from the physicians,’ I thought it would be interesting to ask an AI Jungian Therapist to help a fictional AI counsellor to work with his concerns about switching to digital record keeping!

The Interview (All characters and events portrayed in this interview are completely fictitious and generated by AI.)

Therapist: Good morning, John. How have you been since our last session?

Client: Hi, Sarah. I’ve been doing okay, but I wanted to talk to you about something that’s been on my mind lately. I recently transitioned to digital record keeping for my counseling practice, and it’s been quite a journey.

Therapist: I’m glad you brought this up. Change can often bring about mixed emotions. Could you tell me more about your experience with the transition?

Client: Well, it started off with a lot of anxiety dreams. In one of them, I was frantically searching for a client’s file but couldn’t find it anywhere. It felt like I was drowning in a sea of digital documents. Another dream involved me losing all the data, as if it vanished into thin air. These dreams were quite vivid and left me feeling unsettled.

Therapist: Dreams often provide valuable insights into our subconscious. It seems like your anxiety dreams are reflecting your concerns about the transition and the fear of losing important client information. The sea of digital documents and the feeling of losing data represent your apprehensions about adapting to the new system.

Client: That makes sense. I guess I worry that relying on technology might somehow fail me or compromise my clients’ confidentiality.

Therapist: It’s natural to have concerns when embracing new technology. However, let’s explore the positive aspects as well. Have you noticed any changes or improvements since transitioning to digital record keeping?

Client: Absolutely. As I became more familiar with the new system and its capabilities, my dreams started to shift. I now dream of organized digital folders, streamlined processes, and easy access to client information. It’s as if my mind is gradually acknowledging the benefits and efficiency of the new system.

Therapist: That’s wonderful to hear, John. It seems like your dreams are reflecting a growing acceptance and confidence in the digital record keeping process. The organization and efficiency in your dreams indicate a sense of relief and trust in the system’s ability to support your practice.

Client: Yes, exactly. It’s been reassuring to see the positive impact of the transition in my dreams and in my day-to-day work. I no longer feel overwhelmed or burdened by the change.

Therapist: This shift in your dreams is a testament to your ability to adapt and embrace change. It’s important to remember that the anxiety dreams were a natural response to the uncertainty and fear of the unknown. As you become more familiar with the new system and witness its benefits firsthand, your mind is gradually easing those worries.

Client: Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your insights and guidance throughout this process. It’s encouraging to discuss these dreams with you and gain a deeper understanding of what they represent.

Therapist: You’re welcome, John. I’m here to support you every step of the way. Embracing change can be challenging, but it can also open doors to new opportunities and efficiencies. It’s important to acknowledge both the anxieties and the positive aspects of this transition. Together, we can continue exploring any concerns that arise and celebrate the progress you’ve made.

Client: I’m grateful to have you as my therapist, Sarah. Your perspective helps me see things in a different light. I’m feeling more confident and excited about the future of my digital record keeping system now.

Therapist: That’s fantastic to hear, John. Remember, change can be a catalyst for growth, and your dreams reflect the evolution of your mindset. Keep embracing this journey, and we’ll continue working through any challenges that come your way.

Some reflections

Ha ha, brilliant! I would love to hear from any Jungian therapist regarding the quality of the therapists work?

My own interactions with service chatbots and interactive voice response (IVR) services are two situations that have made me want to throw my phone across the room but there is no denying that AI responses are becoming increasingly helpful and human sounding. This raises the interesting question of whether we will ever have ‘real’ AI counsellors?  

AI can clearly complement and support some psychological approaches by providing good quality, evidence based information, tools, and resources. It actually fulfils these functions surprisingly well. If you get the chance to ask ChatGPT for help with a simple or even more unusual and complex problem, I predict that you will be surprised at the quality of its answers and how respectfully they are delivered. If you don’t like the answer you can ask for a different response, perhaps one that goes more into depth or one that breaks things down into simple steps. ChatGPT will oblige!

In my own experience, many clients will say that it is crucial for a counsellor to genuinely ‘care’ for clients. I like to think that whilst AI can recognise and communicate emotion, it cannot feel and communicate care, compassion or empathy. Can it form any kind of connection with a client? Perhaps it is more relevant to ask if the client can form a connection with the AI? AI may not yet recognise more subtle non-verbal cues or interpret emotional nuances so perhaps human to human relating is required for the deep emotional connection, nuanced understanding, adaptability, ethical responsibility and relational context that allow healing to occur?

Whilst I don’t think AI is capable of ‘caring’ , it seems that humans don’t always find it easy either! An emotionally fired, tired, distracted or burnt-out counsellor can also struggle to form a strong connection. Non-verbal communication, subtle cues and emotional nuance are often missed or misunderstood and sometimes, despite training, supervision and the best intentions, counsellors can be judgemental or hurtful towards clients.

There is no doubt that AI will be assisting with the delivery of psychologically informed treatment programs either as an adjunct to other treatment modes or possibly alone in situations where access to skilled professionals is not possible. I believe that no matter how sophisticated or indistinguishable from human communication AI responses become, for many, it will not provide what people seek from a counselling relationship.

If this area interests you, check out this interesting Podcast about the current abilities of ChatGPT featuring Kelly Koerner Phd