The virtual therapist sits in a big armchair, shuffling slightly and blinking naturally, apparently waiting for me to get comfortable in front of the screen.
“Hi, I’m Ellie,” she says. “Thanks for coming in today.”
She laughs when I say I find her a little bit creepy, and then goes straight into questions about where I’m from and where I studied.
“I’m not a therapist, but I’m here to learn about people and would love to learn about you,” she asks. “Is that OK?”
Ellie’s voice is soft and calming, and as her questions grow more and more personal I quickly slip into answering as if there were a real person in the room rather than a computer-generated image.
…With every answer I’m being watched and studied in minute detail by a simple gaming sensor and a webcam.
How I smile, which direction I look, the tone of my voice, and my body language are all being precisely recorded and analysed by the computer system, which then tells Ellie how best to interact with me.
Right now there are two assistants guiding the avatar, in essence standing behind a screen, but that will not always be the case:
Real people come in to answer Ellie’s questions every day as part of the research, and the computer is gradually learning how to react in every situation.
It is being taught how to be human, and to respond as a doctor would to the patients’ cues.
Soon Ellie will be able to go it alone.