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27 Oct 2014

Computers as Better Listeners

Computer Better Listener & No Judgement

Computers programmed with artificial intelligence can be better listeners when certain concerns exist.

Allowing people to talk reduces anxiety. It’s a form of therapy. Finding patient, disciplined listeners can be tough though. Computers, using artificial intelligence software, have infinite patience and tolerance.

In “The Computer Will See You Now” (The Economist, August 16, 2014 edition), Jonathan Gratch (Institute for Creative Technologies) has successfully explored such computers as therapists in some circumstances. Humans can learn from these circumstances. They can improve listening skills. As managers, they can learn to employ venting techniques better.

These conditions seemed to favor computers:

  • Long, intense discussions
  • Disclosure of unsettling graphic events
  • Fears of being judged
  • Strong concerns regarding confidentiality

Even though good therapists can navigate these conditions well, clients might feel differently. For instance, a good therapist could endure long, intense discussions, but the client might become anxious that he’s taking too much of the therapist’s time.

As another example, Gratch discussed computers’ potential to help war veterans. Soldiers are often reluctant to discuss battlefield experiences, the horrors and their dealings with them. While good therapists can navigate these, Gratch’s work shows that clients still initially withhold information.

Withholding information occurs because events are too unsettling or graphic, clients fear being judged or they have heightened concerns about confidentiality. Of these, avoiding judgment is very difficult for everyday listeners. This is especially true in the workplace. Yet, avoiding judgment is a very effective development tool for managers with employees.

Computer therapy isn’t as outlandish as it might seem initially. It’s similar to journaling. It offers benefits for managing stress. Journaling allows us to explore our thoughts and feelings about life’s events. The only person we express them to is ourselves, same with computer therapy. Journaling and computer therapy are both solitary, self-expressionistic experiences. Moreover, both are complementary with professional therapy. Therapists often recommend journaling to clients as part of their work with them. Computer therapy could serve the same role.

Frequently though, we focus on computers displacing workers. We blind ourselves to the lessons computers give about being human. As we program computers to be like us. We learn more about ourselves. Can we withhold judgment so we can learn?


2 Responses

  1. Wow!!! Where to start… First, I guess the obvious: any time you put anything into a computer, it’s never private!!! Second, I cannot believe talking with the best computer can ever be even close to talking with a human being. Third, believing in goodness of human beings, there will always be caring people to listen. Fourth, at best, the AI might be reconfigured to help anyone in need to becOme empathetic.

    1. Mike Lehr

      I understand from where you are coming, John. I agree for the most part. First, realize nothing goes into the computer unless you set it to record your conversation. Second, I do believe the BEST computer can be a better listener than A human being. Now, if you want to pair the BEST computer against the BEST human or even one in the top quintile, then I would agree. Third, yes, there will be caring humans to listen, but it takes more than caring to listen especially if it’s to have therapeutic value. It’s very easy for us to impose our own “hang ups” onto others especially when we care. Fourth, I agree that artificial intelligence could help teach empathy to others.

      I don’t want to bet against artificial intelligence. Still, to me, the real lesson is what we learn about listening better (i.e. don’t be judgmental) as we attempt to make artificial intelligence better. I do believe computers could be used very effectively in the same way as journals are. Yes, you’re right. Privacy will be a consideration. I see a day quickly coming though in which computers will be better listeners, especially for therapeutic purposes, than most except for professionals.

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