Computer program may provide therapy for astronauts

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(Host) Researchers at Dartmouth College are working on a self help computer program to provide astronauts with psychological advice in space. The program talks and offers resources to solve personal problems, but it won’t exactly be the Hal of the movie 2001.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) In “2001: A Space Odyssey” the computer Hal takes an all too personal interest in his human companions. Now Dartmouth researchers want to create a computer that also addresses personal issues, but it’s a far cry from Hal. Dartmouth professor and physician Jay Buckey spent sixteen days aboard a space shuttle mission. Buckey says as flights get even longer, the psychological challenges of space travel become more formidable.

(Buckey) “It’s just a really challenging environment. One of the analogies that someone made was to Groundhog Day, you know the movie Groundhog Day, where each day is a replay of the same sort of events and people – which was novel at first but over time really became a problem.”

(Zind) Veterans of long flights say interpersonal conflict and mild depression are occupational hazards.

Researchers at the Dartmouth Medical School are in the early stages of developing a computer program to help future astronauts deal with emotional and psychological problems in space. The program will be available on each astronaut’s laptop computer. It will lead the astronaut through a step by step process of identifying a problem and then solving it. The program will include videos of experts talking about depression and interpersonal problems and astronauts relating their own experiences.

Dartmouth researcher James Carter steers clear of comparisons to the Eliza program developed years ago at MIT. Eliza actually gave simple responses to questions it was asked:

(Carter) “The system doesn’t have any particular artificial intelligence designed into it. It’s not something that’s going to talk back to the patient or even write back to the patient. It’s not going to be an ‘Eliza’ type of program or a program where the computer acts like an actual psychotherapist.”

(Zind) Carter stresses that the program his group is creating is more like a self-help book than actual therapist. Despite the program’s designed indifference to the particulars of a space traveler’s problems, Carter says it has some advantages over its human counterparts. He points to studies showing people are more willing to unburden themselves to a non-judgmental computer than to another human.

Jay Buckey says because of a lack of privacy, it would be difficult for an astronaut to have a private conversation with someone back on Earth. Even if that were possible, Buckey says many fliers would be hesitant to radio someone on the ground to talk about personal issues:

(Buckey) “You have to realize that once you do do that, you’re highlighting something for the ground. And, you have to think about whether you want to do that or not.”

(Zind) The computer program will be at least two years in the making. Developers say in the future, similar programs could be helpful to people working in submarines, oilrigs and other extreme environments.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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