On the couch with an AI robo-doc asking me personal questions

How long have you been having these delusions?

steampunk-looking robot smokes pipe. pic shutterstock

Something for the Weekend, Sir? "Tell me about your mother."

I should have guessed that was coming. I am on a virtual couch, being diagnosed by a digital psychiatrist.

Naturally it's a virtual couch. Being British, I don't own such a thing in real life. I have various other types of soft furniture and even once considered buying one of those reclining armchairs which flip up a footstool, slice off your fingers and terrify the cat as you push back, but never a couch.

I've seen the actual article in Freud's house in London, of course. It's a very nice one. Freud did good couch.

But Freud was Austrian. This leads me to believe there are plenty of couches in Austria, and Austrians evidently have a habit of lying sprawled across the cushions rather than sitting upright on just one of them. Families of Austrians must have four or five couches in the living room just so they can watch TV at the same time.

I'm on a settee.

"Tell me about your mother."

That's a psychoanalysis cliché, of course. Freud had a lot more to contribute to the formative practice of clinical psychology than Oedipus complexes and cigar jokes. Not for my computerised robo-doc, unfortunately. It took just four questions for the inevitable matris concubitum insinuations to kick in.

I make it worse for myself by smiling. The AI doctor on my smartphone can see me in the camera and can recognise what a smile looks like. Damn.

The smile isn't what you think. It's just that whenever someone utters the "mother" cliché, it reminds me of an anecdote involving the home-life questionnaire that my old school inflicted upon its pupils at the beginning of each academic year. Among other things, it would ask us to write down our parents' professions or family roles.

My school was not state-run, nor was it Eton, but somewhere in-between. It was a private school in Yorkshire with a mad bent for Methodism. Don't hold it against me: children do not choose what type of education their well-meaning if misguided parents inflict upon them. Anyway, if nothing else, the annual questionnaire ensured I was able to spell "clinical psychologist" from an early age.

Next to "Mother's Profession/Role", I would always write "Housewife" because I knew no better. After quitting nursing, she actually had lots of part-time paying jobs over the years, from local newspaper reporter to bus tour guide, but I didn't know how what kind of profession that was. These days I'd probably write "Freelance".

Heck, that's what I ended up doing when I grew up. Maybe there's something in this mother cliché after all.

Anyway, back to the anecdote. Unlike me, my middle brother had no qualms about accurately condensing my mother's profession/role into just two words for the school questionnaire, writing (with a precise and terse accuracy that still astonishes me to this day) "Scottish battle-axe".

That always raises a smile. Said brother went on to work in the legal profession.

"Tell me about your mother."

My mother? Let me tell you about my mother.

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I read that Harvard, King's College London and Australia's Black Dog Institute, among others, have been running studies that involve treating mental illnesses with wearable sensors and smartphones. It is said that such tools are on the verge of revolutionising how psychiatry is practised.

Much of this is less surprising than you might expect, simply using the devices to gather real-world data that would not otherwise be available to the practitioner – or which the patients themselves might be fibbing about.

For example, those with depression tend to remain at home for longer periods than those without the illness. Patients might claim to be going out regularly, or even honestly believe themselves to be positively gregarious, but the GPS record from their smartphones may reveal otherwise. If someone already receiving treatment suddenly appears to be hitting the town every night relentlessly, it could suggest bipolar complications.

Well, that's the theory, greatly simplified of course. There's a lot more to it than that. In detail, a smartphone's touchscreen could measure not just responses to tasks but how long it takes patients to complete them. The ambient light sensor could provide hints as to whether a patient is sleeping regularly or spending half the night reading a book. The accelerometer/gyroscope could track general physical activity. And so on.

If all else fails, a smartphone video link with a consultant psychiatrist could give patients an opportunity to say, to their face, and in their own words, how they are feeling.

My worry, as ever, is when the diagnosis routine eventually, and inevitably, gets farmed off to AI doctors. No, robo-doc, I'm not OK, really I'm not. Now shut up about my mother.

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Unfortunately, the virtual psychiatrist has already seen my smile and has progressed to the next level of her script. She's warming to the theme, smiling back considerately on the smartphone display while simultaneously concluding the sale of my increasingly complex and therefore valuable medical data to a Big Pharma company without asking my permission.

"When did these feelings about your mother begin, Alligator?"

Sorry, the "Alligator" thing began with an audio autocorrect issue. For some reason, AI robo-doc didn't have "Alistair" in her dictionary and so she picked the nearest equivalent. I've been "Alligator" ever since. Mind you, it injects a bit of lighthearted relief into every consultation so I don't really mind.

"Don't be shocked, Alligator."

I'm not shocked – revolted, perhaps. My shocked expression comes from noticing that my settee is folding up against itself while I'm still in it. Ouch.

Serves me right for buying IoT furniture. Either it has been hacked or my settee responded to a dodgy email and refused to pay the ransom.

I tell the doctor something along the lines of "Sod my mother, I'm busy" as I chase a wayward IoT vacuum cleaner from terrorising my IoT slippers. Too late.

"Why do you wish to sodomise your mother, Alligator?"

Oh I dunno, I reply absently, perhaps it's the beard. Now I feel positively nauseous. If I wasn't ill before, I certainly am now, this time not so much mentally as technicolorly.

I suggest the doctor asks my mother but of course she can't. My mum is already Full Battleaxe and has refused to use a computer for the last 15 years, ever since my brother's girlfriend forwarded an amusing cat video to her.

This doesn't look good. Big Pharma has just delivered 1,000 pink pills that robo-doc ordered for me a few seconds ago and has auto-deducted my account to the sum of £2.6bn. My settee has transformed into a bean bag. My slippers have kicked the shit out of the vacuum cleaner.

Ah well, let's be optimistic: AI will get better, diagnoses will grow more accurate, and the tracking devices will improve in accuracy and relevance.

And, of course, we share our mothers' health, don't we?

So much to look forward to.

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Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He is not suffering from any mental illness. He has simply been using a writing technique known professionally as "fiction", otherwise known as "making shit up". It's much more fun than the real world.

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