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Thursday, June 13, 2024

AI Companionship

 In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the day-to-day challenges facing autistic people and their families

Webb Wright at Scientific American:

Many mental health experts have serious concerns about people who are socially isolated—autistic or not—relying on AI companionship apps as a means of self-treatment or escapism. The problem is “not the inherent content of the AI,” says Catherine Lord, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles who specializes in autism. But she worries that AI can exacerbate a user’s isolation if the technology is used without the guidance of trained therapists. (Replika and WithFeeling.AI, Paradot’s parent company, have not responded to Scientific American’s requests for comment.)

The open-ended interactions provided by such apps present a double-edged sword for autistic users. Personalized avatars that respond to user behavior with encouraging, humanlike language could help autistic people open up about themselves, especially in ways they may not be able to with other individuals. But these avatars—unlike real people—are always available and very rarely criticize anyone’s opinions. “You end up in this circuit where you have an algorithm dressed up as a human telling you that you’re right and maybe pushing you towards bad choices,” says Valentina Pitardi, an associate professor of marketing at Surrey Business School in England, who has studied the emotional impacts of AI companionship apps.


Lord also points to what she regards as a lack of real data that show any kind of therapeutic benefit of AI-powered apps for autistic users. She draws a comparison to prescription drugs: new medications must pass rigorous human trials before legal approval, and the same should be true of AI for autistic users, in her view. “It should be clear what the risks are and what the true value is,” she says. But many companion apps are only a few years old, and autism research is often a painstakingly slow process. For more than three decades, Lord has been running a single longitudinal study of autistic people, for example. It will take some time before she and other autism experts fully understand the technology’s potential consequences.