Virtual Therapist

This NPR story alerted to the newest kind of psychological therapist being built by the the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), in conjunction with the Pentagon.  I say built because “Ellie,” the experimental therapist, is not a person, but rather a computer.  In this instance “she” is being used to interview veterans and screen them for signs of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Ellie works by asking the research subject questions and recording/analyzing his or her responses, as shown in this demonstration video:

Ellie focuses not on what the interviewee says, but on his or her non-verbal cues,  using an interactive technology called multisense:

Multisense automatically tracks and analyzes in real-time facial expressions, body posture, acoustic features, linguistic patterns and higher-level behavior descriptors (e.g. attention, fidgeting). From these signals and behaviors, indicators of psychological distress are inferred to inform directly the healthcare provider or the virtual human.

Studies have shown that Ellie interprets some of these expressions quite well.  Reportedly she asses the genuineness of a smile, for example, as well as a human psychologist.

This is a nifty technological achievement, certainly.  But what’s just as interesting to me as the computer capability is people’s willingness to interact with the computer.  Many people not only carry on the somewhat awkward conversation with the machine, but they actually share more than they would with a human counterpart:

“People opened up more to the virtual human than to a real person. They said they felt less judged by the virtual human,” [ICT psychologist Gale] Lucas said, even though they knew that their answers would be recorded and viewed later by workers in a lab.

“It’s about what’s happening in the moment — having a safe place to talk,” she added.

Why are interviewees more open when talking to a computer?  An article in Computers in Human Behavior elaborates:

participants who believed they were interacting with a computer reported lower fear of self-disclosure, lower impression management, displayed their sadness more intensely, and were rated by observers as more willing to disclose. These results suggest that automated VHs [virtual humans] can help overcome a significant barrier to obtaining truthful patient information.

Lower “impression management”?  That is the “goal-directed conscious or subconscious process in which people attempt to influence the perceptions of other people . . . they do so by regulating and controlling information in social interaction.”  In other words, interviewees are less concerned about being judged by the machine, and express themselves in a less inhibited manner.

Computers can also facilitate communication by being better listeners.  They can be programmed not to interrupt the speaker.  And they avoid distracting body language–e.g., looking around, checking the phone, and yawning.  Today it’s challenging finding a human who gives such undivided attention.

At any rate, given continuous technological advancements, we’re sure to chat with more virtual humans in the future.

Seeing Blue

NASA released this rover photo of a “blue” sunset on Mars:

A striking scene.  But why is the sunset “blue,” instead of red or orange?

Dust in the Martian atmosphere has fine particles that permit blue light to penetrate the atmosphere more efficiently than longer-wavelength colors. That causes the blue colors in the mixed light coming from the sun to stay closer to sun’s part of the sky, compared to the wider scattering of yellow and red colors. The effect is most pronounced near sunset, when light from the sun passes through a longer path in the atmosphere than it does at mid-day.

In other words, the sky isn’t actually blue–debris in the atmosphere distort how we see the sun’s light.

This phenomenon doesn’t just occur on Mars . . . or with sunlight.  It also happens in our minds.  Our pendent beliefs and biases–like the dust in the Martian atmosphere–alter the way we perceive the world around us.

Often these filters are the useful product of experience, helping us navigate more efficiently through life’s unending grind.  But sometimes the particles affecting our perception are psychological constructs which cloud, rather than enhance, our vision.

This happens to me when I’m feeling depressed.  My mind puts a negative tint on the world around me. And not just on the bad things happening, but on ordinary, everyday incidents.  I synthesize chance events into a grand plot the universe is waging against me.

In my more even-tempered moments, when I’m not sad, I recognize how this distortion further brings me down. But by then it’s too late to help me through a darker stretch.

So next time I’m feeling melancholy, I’ll try think of the martian sunset.  It will remind me that things aren’t always as blue as they appear.  My mental martian dust alters how I see them.

Unique Names

Michael Stevens, whose videos I generally enjoy, posits an interesting question:

In typical Vsauce fashion, he delves into other issues, but the video prompted me to ponder the uniqueness of my name, Brian Arner.

For years I assumed that I was the world’s only Brian Arner.  Outside of my immediate family, I was only aware of a small clan of Arners, living near Chattanooga, and none of them were named Brian.

Then, when I was in my 20s, I heard from a former teacher that he had helped move a relative onto campus–named Brian Arner!  This was disconcerting.  An email had stripped me of my singularity.  I shared the world with a namesake.  The once orderly cosmos now churned with confusion  What was he like?  Was he stealing my identity?  Would I soon be saddled with someone else’s debt?

That was not the end of it.  Later, when I put a website up, I was surprised–and amused–to have a few emailers contact me, asking if they could purchase my music.  Turns out there’s yet another Brian Arner, a distantly-related Christian vocal artist.  He’s older than me.  So I was not the first, or last, Brian Arner.

In the early 2000s, when I became interested in genealogy, I discovered the Arner family is much larger than I imagined, especially in Pennsylvania, where the family first settled.  According to this site, there were 1,293 Arners counted in the 2000 U.S. Census, making it the 19,376th most common surname.

Based on a statistical calculation of name frequency, the website estimates there may be six Brian Arners in America.
Logo There are
people with the name Brian Arner in the U.S.A.

How many have your name?

So while unique names still exist, mine is not one of them.  But I’ve learned that’s OK.  I’ve had a few minor identity hiccups online,  but no harm no foul.  People don’t treat me as a cheap clone.  The debt collectors haven’t beaten down my door looking for someone else.  The sun still rises and sets every day.

Because ultimately I am not Brian Arner, the two words people use to describe me.  As Shakespeare famously mused:

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

We get our uniqueness, our real identity, from who we are as people, not from our names.


From the quote-of-the-day files:

I think you’re still salvageable.

–My witch doctor (rheumatologist), yesterday, commenting on my medical condition.  He said this in a clinical, matter-of-fact, non-humorous manner.

It’s nice to know that a medical professional has not yet relegated me to the scrapheap of humanity.

Incidentally, avoid the need to see a rheumatologist, if at all possible.  It’s a pseudoscience.  Despite medical advancements on other fronts, little is known about the causes, behavior, and treatments for autoimmune joint inflammation.

Letters From The Past

I came across this story: “Woman Posting Pennsylvania Couple’s 109 Love Letters From More Than 100 Years Ago

In short, a woman bought 109 letters (dated 1905 – 1910) from a street vendor and decided to start posting them on a blog,  109LOVELETTERS.

I’m curious what people wrote about 100 years ago, so I glanced at a few of them.  There’s nothing particularly remarkable in what I read–a young woman writing about daily things in her life: work, church, mutual acquaintances.  It’s pretty ordinary stuff, unlikely to land in the Smithsonian.

I had an unusual feeling when I was reading them, though.  I felt a bit voyeurish peering at the personal correspondence of the long-departed.  Often, when people discover human remains, they go to extra lengths to see that they are disturbed as little as possible.  Aren’t private letters just as personal as someone’s bones?

In one note, Daisy, the letters’ author, writes:

I am writing under difficulties. My Aunt, two cousins and a friend are in the same room talking and having a good time. And every once in a while I can’t resist and must talk too.

In my mind’s eye I imagine Daisy sitting at a table trying to focus on her letter to John.  I wonder if she had any idea that someday a guy in Tennessee, perched in front of a computer screen, would read what she was writing.

Probably not.

Two Topics I’m Following

In the last several months a couple topics have piqued my interest much more than I previously imagined they would.

(1) Conflict in Ukraine:  My initial attraction to Ukraine’s plight stems from my genealogical connection–my mom’s grandparents emigrated from there.  But it’s grown beyond that as I’ve watched the Euromaidan and subsequent war unfold.

Along the way I’ve learned about the history, people, culture, economy, religion, and politics in the region.  Eighteen months ago I knew very little about any of it.  I’m hardly an expert now, but I do know something.

I follow a large Twitter list to keep up on all the news, and am engage in discussion/debate at a couple forums (I’m Velo Vol).

Although the War in Eastern Ukraine receives only intermittent U.S. news media coverage, it’s one of the important foreign policy issues we face. This doesn’t have the ideological makeup of Cold War 2.0, as some have described it.  But it does jeopardize Eastern European stability.

(2) Research on the human microbiome: This, too, has a personal angle.  I have psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune disorder which is not well understood at all.  We don’t know what causes it, what triggers the inflammation, why drugs to relieve symptoms work (or more often, don’t work) . . . it’s a big mystery.

But there’s a growing body of research linking these kinds of diseases to the microorganisms in the gastrointestinal tract, where most of the immune system resides.

For example, one small study shows that people with psoriatic arthritis have below normal levels of multiple intestinal bacteria.

Of course correlation does not equal causation, and we’re years away from translating these discoveries into new therapies, much less a cure.  But this kind of thing gives me hope that we’ll someday get there.  So I like to keep up on research news.