Published on January 6, 2022
When I was a teenager, I spent a year meeting weekly with a psychiatrist. In the end, talking about myself bored even me. But the value of the sessions was real. They gave me, at a turbulent time in my life, a chance to speak honestly and deeply with another human being without the hand-wringing of my family or the burden of guilt. For many, psychiatrists and other mental-health counselors have replaced the clergy as healers of the soul. Today, science too often and too easily seems to preclude the hunger for God. But at least modern therapists share something important—their humanity—with their patients. Both are creatures of flesh and blood.
But the world is changing. Robots with clinical psychology expertise may still sound like a joke, but artificial-intelligence alternatives to human therapists no longer belong to “The Twilight Zone.” Quite the opposite. AI is already used to scan medical records, social-media posts, and similar data for mental-illness indicators and potential therapies. For the moment, medical experts are duly cautious. In the words of John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, AI-driven chatbot therapy may sound exciting, but “we are not yet seeing evidence matching marketing.” The modern, and especially American, addiction to technology as the answer to every problem may be excessive, but it would not have surprised Augusto Del Noce. And therein lies a cautionary tale.
Mr. Maier is a senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government and a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.