Psychology and other “helping professions” such as counselling and social work are often regarded as quintessentially human domains. Unlike workers in manual or routine jobs, psychologists generally see no threat to their career from advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence.
Economists largely agree. One of the most wide-ranging and influential surveys of the future of employment, by Oxford economists Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, rated the probability that psychology could be automated in the near future at a mere 0.43%. This work was initially carried out in 2013 and expanded upon in 2019.
We are behavourial scientists studying organisational behaviour, and one of us (Ben Morrison) is also a registered psychologist. Our analysis over the past four years shows the idea psychology cannot be automated is now out of date.
Psychology already makes use of many automated tools, and even without significant advances in AI we foresee significant impacts in the very near future.
What do psychologists do all day?
Previous projections assumed the work of a psychologist requires extensive empathic and intuitive skills. These are unlikely to be replicated by machines any time soon.
However, we argue the typical psychologist’s job has four primary components: assessment, formulation, intervention, and evaluation of outcome. Each component can already be automated to some extent.
- Assessment of a client’s strengths and difficulties is largely carried out by computer-driven presentations of psychological tests, interpretation of results and the writing of interpretative reports.
- The rules for diagnosis of conditions are far advanced, to the extent that decision trees are extensively used by practitioners.
- Interventions are designed along formulaic lines, providing explicit rules for the presentation of guidance and problem solving, with exercises and reflections at specific points in the therapy.
- Evaluation is largely a replay of the initial assessment.
Much of the work of the helping professional does not require empathy or intuition. Psychology has essentially laid the groundwork for the replication of human practice by a machine.
A profession in denial?
Nearly four years ago, we published an article in the bulletin of the Australian Psychological Society, asking how AI and other advanced technologies would disrupt the helping professions. We were conservative in our predictions, but even so we suggested significant potential impacts on employment and education.
We were not arguing that so-called “strong” AI would emerge to replace humanity. We simply showed how the kind of narrow AI that currently exists (and is steadily improving) could invade the job territory of the helping professions.
AI-driven mental health chatbots are already available. Shutterstock
A range of AI-driven mental health apps are already available, such as Cogniant and Woebot. Several such products adopt cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) procedures, widely considered the “gold standard” of intervention for many psychological conditions.
These programs typically use artificially intelligent conversational agents, or chatbots, to provide a form of talking therapy that helps users manage their own mental health. Research on the technology has already shown great promise.
Our concern about the future was not, however, shared among members of the helping professions. Still, we continue to present our case widely.