Unit Four Project: AI Therapy


DCC Project 4

What steps would you take to access therapy? Admitting that there’s a need for it, seeking out a therapist, and scheduling an appointment can all seem overwhelming to someone struggling with a mental disorder. Now imagine that a new technology allows people to access therapy conveniently anytime and anywhere that they have Internet access. With artificially-intelligent therapists, this new access to mental healthcare could become a reality. Born of sites like Web MD, therapy forums, and the self-help content already available online, the AI therapist is designed to make mental healthcare more widely accessible.

The AI therapist is accessed over the Internet from any phone, tablet, computer, or other web-enabled device. It provides talk therapy by listening to the user’s voice and responding intelligently in a human-sounding voice, according to pre-programmed psychological knowledge. The software that determines the AI therapist’s responses is written by a conference of psychologists in order to decide the optimal treatment for different disorders.

The AI therapist was designed by researchers and developers at the University of Maryland. It was intended to be made available for free on the Internet in order to make mental healthcare more accessible. Similar privatized AI therapy services are being introduced that may threaten the easy availability of web therapy.

Several problems are presented by the development of the AI therapist. One is an inherent design flaw: although the therapist’s voice may sound convincingly human, anyone interacting with it will be aware that they are not actually speaking with another person. As we discussed in class, patients might feel uncomfortable talking with the AI if they feel that it is not truly able to empathize with them because it lacks human experiences. Other problems that arise with the development of the AI therapist have to do with labor. For one, the AI would be able to replace many therapists and force them out of jobs. Actual human therapists with in-person sessions may be reserved for only the wealthiest people and come at high prices, leaving AI therapy to the majority of patients. Another issue that arises is related to ethics and AI. Do we consider the AI therapist a person? Is it self-aware, and does it need to be compensated for its labor? For all the good it could do, the AI therapist presents issues when it comes to effectiveness and ethics.

The AI therapist both challenges and reinforces social divisions. For one, it challenges social divisions in terms of the unequal access to therapy and mental healthcare between social classes. AI therapy could make mental healthcare accessible to a greater number of people, expanding its reach beyond the current privileged few. On the other hand, we cannot assume that making the AI therapist available free of charge over the Internet will make it available to everyone. Patients need to have some wealth in order to access AI therapy; for example, they need an internet-accessible device. Additionally, people would need to have access to the Internet in their homes in order to use the AI therapist. The practice of going to a library, coffee shop or restaurant with wifi would most likely not work with AI therapy because people would probably not be willing to share their thoughts and feelings openly with their therapist in a public space. For this reason, AI therapy will probably be limited to people with Internet access in their homes. And just having Internet access at home does not guarantee that users will feel free to share their thoughts and feelings with the AI therapist; people will probably also require privacy within their homes to make use of the technology. For these reasons, AI therapy could reinforce the inequalities present in accessibility to therapy depending on wealth and class.

Another way that AI therapy might, unfortunately, reinforce social divisions is by fitting in to the narrative that mental healthcare is something to be ashamed of and kept private. While it’s great if more people get access to therapy due to the AI therapist because they feel more comfortable sharing with a computer, the nature of the technology also allows people to get mental healthcare more covertly. In so doing, it circumvents the need to fight against the systems of power that tell us to hide use of mental healthcare. Though the AI therapist might tend to reinforce the stigma surrounding therapy, the spread of therapy to a wider public that might result from its introduction could fight that stigma.

The AI therapist has the potential to change how society views mental healthcare. Instead of being an elusive service reserved for a small group of people, the AI therapist could open up therapy to a much greater number of people. However, as with any technology that relies on the Internet, it’s important to remember that although the service doesn’t have a price tag, it’s not necessarily free. AI therapy could reinforce the limited access to therapy based on wealth and class, even as it tries to expand the reach of mental healthcare.

Digital DNA


The new technology that I have thought up is called “Digital DNA”.  What this technology allows for is genetic plastic surgery.  This is done through a computer program that is able to mirror the DNA replication process that naturally occurs in the human body.  The computer program itself would utilize the knowledge of nucleotide base pairs gained through the human genome project to write out the sequences necessary to exemplify specific traits.  The required nucleotide base pairs would then be ordered so that a full strand of DNA would be created.  This process would be replicated hundreds of thousands of times until enough DNA had been created to evoke a reaction from the human body.  The next step in the process would be DNA extraction where the existing DNA would be removed from the body to allow the new DNA to create a change.  This artificial DNA would then be introduced into the cells of the human where it would begin the protein synthesis process until enough proteins had been created that the traits would be expressed by the individual.  Basically, the human body uses DNA as a manual on how to create new cells and Digital DNA would replace this manual to allow for changes in traits like skin color, eye color, or even traits such as height and weight.  Even further it could be used to change the gender of an individual.

This would be initially designed by geneticists for the purpose of reversing genetically inherited traits such as deformation, heart projects, or some other birth defect.  However as with all technology, it will be abused by the wealthy elite in order to change their physical appearance to be more like that of what is considered “perfect”.  I believe that it would then transition into the LGBT community as people would be able to instantly and completely change their sex to whatever gender they identify with.  After this I believe that the technology would become more widespread allowing other wealth brackets to access it.  In this instance it would be used both in the way that the creators intended as well as being misused.  The creators would be playing God as they are literally changing the code that determines the physical makeup of people.

The most obvious problem that would be associated with this product would be a severe increase in the division of classes as the wealthy elite would take on an entirely different appearance than that of the poorer class.  It’s not too far of a stretch to assume that there would be an attempt at creating a new Aryan race as people would be able to pick and choose their physical traits making poor and wealthy easily distinguishable.  However, as this process becomes cheaper and more accessible to the common person I believe that people will at first change to all mirror the same image of perfection until people inevitably become bored of seeing the same look everywhere.  I believe it will be at this point that true social change will take hold.  People will start celebrating uniqueness as gender, race, and ethnicity would cease to be an issue of discrimination.  At this point the choice of physical appearance would belong entirely to every individual person.  This would challenge every social standard that we as a human race have created up until this point in history.  All discrimination and stereotypes that we have as a culture would be shattered.  Granted, there is still a possibility that cultural differences that currently exist would translate to this new world in a way very similar to the transition that occurred when the internet was first introduced to civilians.   In this case many professionals believed that the anonymity of the internet would have the effect of erasing all racial tensions.  This proved to be untrue as cultural differences translated onto the internet due to differences in which websites people visited, subject matter of conversations, and the manner in which people communicated.

Another major problem that may arise would be a forensic issue as criminals would be able to change their physical appearance as well as the genetic makeup of their DNA making it impossible to identify said criminals.  Laws will have to be passed in order to counteract the actions of these criminals.  This will cost both governments as well as law enforcers money as they attempt to put a stop to these actions.  The standards that would have to be set in order to effectively integrate this technology into the lives of the everyday civilian would create severe issues in terms of making accessibility.

Overall it is impossible to make an accurate prediction as to the actual social effects of introducing this technology into the world due to the fact that it is impossible to predict the actions of human beings.  I think it is safe to say that it would however completely destroy the existing social standards that the human race has created through this point in history.  I personally believe that we should each be proud of who we are and the way that we were born so I would not be particularly happy if this technology became mainstream.  Unfortunately, this technology is already nearing completion as humans already have the option to pick and choose traits that their children will have.  There is a social change coming as these genetically engineered children are born and inherit the Earth.  The extent of the change belongs to them.

Final Project: Bubble People


image from: sarahhalliwell.blogspot.com

Have you ever walked down the street and felt like everyone you saw was in their own little bubble? With earbuds in, staring down at their phone, everyone seemed to be trying to ignore the world? What if people could be physically separated from those around them?

Imagine a literal personal bubble. Think of it as a way of taking your home with you as you go out. It could keep you insulated from outside weather. This bubble could be air conditioned or heated, and could certainly be water proof. The bubble could also be equipped with the many functions of today’s mobile devices: it could play music, watch Netflix, play games, and search the web. What if this bubble drove itself? If it had GPS technology and was able to sense the things around it, the bubble could be a vehicle for traveling down sidewalks and other places where cars aren’t permitted. You could drive downtown, park your car, get in your bubble, and float to your final destination. On the way there, you’d have access to movies, television, books, and other media to occupy your attention.

If this bubble drove itself and had unlimited entertainment technology, would there be a window? Would the people using the bubble see the outside world? Would they want to? When people watch movies and television, they want to be absorbed into the story, and forget about the outside world. In that sense, a bubble with a window would be like a movie theater with a window. As a result, the bubble would be an isolated container in order to allow its users to become engrossed in the media presented to them.

Any tech company involved with entertainment would be interested in this technology, as it allows people to experience media in new settings. Today, you can’t walk down the street reading or watching television. As you stare down, you would likely run into objects or other people. This already often happens with texting, which does not require the user to be watching the screen as actively as other forms of entertainment. The solution is to then have a more comprehensive device that will take you to your destination, allowing you to be entertained during your journey.

Like every new technology, this bubble has social implications beyond what its creators intended. Being in the bubble, you are safely unaware of the world around you. The bubble creates a secluded space in a public setting. Today, it is only possible to try and ignore the world as you walk down the street. While you may be distracted by your devices, you are still aware of the people and space around you. However, inside of the bubble, you are removed from the world.

One possible advantage of the bubble is that it could protect the user from street harassment. The bubbles would make you anonymous as you walked down the street. As a result of not seeing knowing what you look like, no one will be approaching you. This may make some people feel safer as they go out in public. Anonymity in public could also provide protection for women in countries where it is unsafe for them to go out alone. However, the bubble does not solve the greater problem of mistreatment of women throughout the world.

The bubble could have great potential for another group of people. If this bubble could remove the need to walk, it could make the world more accessible to people with physical impairments or disabilities. No longer would these people have to worry about the pain and inconvenience of foot travel. Now, they can get in their bubbles and be carried to their destination. Using the bubbles as a means of transportation, people with disabilities could travel more freely. Imagine if you were blind, and you could get in your bubble and trust it would safely take you to your destination?

A potential problem is that this bubble could become a barrier between different classes. Especially if those who can afford the bubble feel they need it for “protection” from the people on the street, this could reinforce negative stereotypes about cities. Because those in the bubble are unaware of the world around them, they would never see any evidence that could disprove their preconceptions. The people in the bubble would become reliant on the media to inform them about their surroundings, instead of stepping outside of the bubble and drawing their own conclusions.

The bubble could also affect the way people interact. How would life be different if every time you went outside, you felt you needed the comfort of your bubble to transport you to your destination? Would people no longer walk with each other? The bubble presents another method of entertainment that removes the user from those around them.

Armored Exoskeletons

Throughout history, man has always strived to design a better and more effective means of killing others and himself surviving the process.  From the phalanx to the armored knight to the musket to the machine gun and the tank, weapons and armor technology have evolved with consistent dedication.  The next step in this progression is the powered, armored combat suit.  By providing the user with augmented strength, electrically powered exoskeletons will allow users to wear significantly heavier full body armor and carry heavier weaponry and equipment than has previously been available to soldiers.  No longer will machine guns and rocket launchers be weapons of specialists, but will be carried by every soldier according to mission requirements or individual preference.  Soldiers will be protected against most if not all small arms fire that unarmored enemies, such as insurgents or rebels will be equipped with.  This armor will be the death of insurgency.

Realistically, this last paragraph is more or less propaganda or a sales pitch from whatever military contractor acquires the contract to mass produce these suits; as armor advances, so do ways of breaking through it, but the advance does highlight a trend: military equipment is passing far beyond what civilian militias could ever hope to match.  As weapons get increasingly more advanced and expensive, governments will be the only groups capable of maintaining these high-tech forces, with unfortunate effects of their peoples.

An axiom whose cynicism is matched only by its accuracy is this: violence makes the world go ‘round.  The power of governments is derived, at its core, at least partially from violence.  It’s behavior restricted by the ability of the people to rise up and remove them from power, something made more difficult every time the combat effectiveness of the soldier increases against that of the civilian.  Minorities; ethnic, religious, or otherwise will be most targeted because their ability to make their positions and opinions heard will be crushed under a ceramic-coated, servo actuated, armored boot.  As we see now with the #blacklivesmatter movement, societies don’t like it when ethnic minorities express discontent with their role in society, but what happens to society when those minorities no longer can object?  When protesters in Baltimore stop fearing being arrested or shot by police officers and start fearing being ripped apart by a faceless, unstoppable suit of armor?

This technology is not in the far future but will probably start getting phased in within the decade.  Within another, some of the technology will spread to the civilian sector, but what does that mean?  Likely, the medical field will see the benefits of this, in the form of more advanced support for people with damaged limbs that can no longer function at full capacity as well as for physical therapy.  Certain manual labor applications would benefit from this technology but likely won’t be seeing too much of it, simply because manual laborers are cheaper and easier to maintain and replace than giant robo-suits.  There would also likely be some adoption in the field of extreme sports, though the expense and weight would likely limit the utility.

Those on the civilian side of this technology will not be a random sample of the population, however.  The expense will limit the target market to middle to upper class families who can afford the suits.  That said though, these suits on the civilian side would likely end up in a similar psychological association as cars, though with somewhat more of a niche application.  Civilian ownership of these suits would be a status symbol, similar to owning a Hummer.

Demographically, the civilian users would likely be primarily white, reflecting the current and likely near future distribution of middle class America.  Military users on the other hand would be much more egalitarian.  The modern military, while definitely not known for being a tolerant organization, integrates it’s recruits well enough that they would likely side with their new family rather than their ethnicity, meaning that in the aspect of distribution of suits, the military would be its own separate entity.  While limiting freedom of expression and adding to the fear of the government, the suits would keep the bullets, explosions, and shrapnel of war farther from the soldiers inside the suits, and for that the soldiers would love them.

These suits seem to be a harbinger of doom, but being the byproduct of the inevitable arms race between nations, the US government will be, and already is compelled to interest in these suits to maintain our technological advantage on the battlefield and our preeminence in the global community.  These suits may, however end up looked upon in the same way as drones, restricted, in the US, at least, to the military and foreign engagements rather than spilling over to law enforcement.