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Silicon Valley’s Therapy Apps a Review of Counseling’s Future?

Those of us of a certain age (and those who are Stanley Kubrick aficionados) recall the character HAL 9000 in the movie 2001 A Space Odyssey. HAL 9000 was the sentient computer who provided support for the crew members on the space mission until it learned that the human passengers intended to disable him. It was chilling when Dave asked HAL to “Open the pod bay doors” only to hear the reply: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”. The 1968 vintage movie envisioned a future when a computer might control the destiny of a human, a notion that seemed far fetched in an era when powerful computers took up a city block and we had not landed on the moon.

Fast forward to today where nearly everyone in the world is transfixed by the information streaming from their cell phones and billionaires are contemplating offering private trips to the moon within a few years. Fast forward to today where, according to a recent NYTimes article by Nellie Bowles, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs are developing apps that provide therapy. Fast forward to today where cash-strapped schools are seeking counseling help while spending millions on technology and it is not hard to envision a marriage of convenience between the tech entrepreneurs and public education, one where students will be able to get advice from an app whose algorithm is designed to provide the kind of support that world class therapists offer.. and get that help at an affordable rate!

How would this work you ask. Ms. Bowles uses Kip, a new therapy app, as an example. Kip uses information gleaned from “world class providers” to develop “smart software tools” designed to offer “a seamless experience for both clients and providers.”  The Times article offers this description of the program:

Traditional therapists scribble notes and review them later, possibly with a mug of chamomile. In the Kip system, notes quickly turn into data. Weeks of therapy are broken down with quizzes to determine exactly how happiness and anxiety levels are progressing, and how quickly.

Kip offers an app that encourages clients to record their moods in real time, prompted by questions that a therapist can choose to have pop up throughout the day. “That way they’re not subject to recency bias,” said Ti Zhao, the company’s founder.

Kip effectively uses the same kind of algorithms as dating services to pair a client with a therapist and provides the therapist with a trove of data that enables them to quickly determine the best course of treatment for their client.

While Ms. Bowles believes that “the new data could provide insights that typical therapists would not come up with on their own”, she also offers several cautionary notes, not the least of which is the possibility that the data gathered by Kip might be sold to others.

The overall tone of the article is somewhat sardonic, with Ms. Bowles calling out the technology industry for its belief that any problem can be solved by gathering enough data and developing a good algorithm. But it overlooks the possibility that there is a large market to be tapped: public schools who have an increasing demand for mental health services and a limited budget. It is not hard to envision an app students could use to match themselves with school counselors or psychologists… and app that would cull out garden variety teen angst from mental distress that requires professional intervention. And as that culling occurs, many stressed students could avoid seeing a counselor altogether, settling instead for something like the Clam Down app described by Ms. Bowles where:

“…a soft male voice told me that my mind can slow down. It can convert concerns to decisions. The process can even become second nature. And if it does, I can be a person of action. A person of action.”

Eventually, many counselors who work with college bound students could be replaced by an algorithm that would provide students with feedback on their proposed choices. It’s not too difficult to foresee an app that would gently tell a student who aspires to get assistant applying to an ivy league college to hear a disembodied voice say: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that”.

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