How A Machine Learned To Spot Depression : Planet Money The computer doesn't pay attention to what you say. What matters is how you say it.

How A Machine Learned To Spot Depression

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Robots are popping up in unexpected places, including a therapist's office at the University of Southern California.

ELLIE: Hi, I'm Ellie. Thanks for coming in today.

BLOCK: Ellie was designed by USC and the military to work with soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Stacey Vanek Smith from our Planet Money podcast explains how this works.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: Jody Mitic remembers his first therapy session with the computer.

JODY MITIC: Ellie - well, Ellie is a strange girl, but I like her.

SMITH: Mitic served in the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan. He lost both of his feet to a bomb, and he had a session with Ellie.

MITIC: I'll be pretty frank, I walked into the room thinking I would be talking to a cartoon, and I was going to have a bit of fun. And I went in the room, and Ellie started talking to me.

ELLIE: I'm not a therapist, but I'm here to learn about people and would love to learn about you.

SMITH: Ellie stares out from a TV screen looking calm - loose bun, beige cardigan and, as I discovered when I started talking to her, not the best conversationalist.

ELLIE: So how are you doing today?

SMITH: I'm doing pretty well, thank you.

ELLIE: That's great.

SMITH: (Laughter) Thanks.

Ellie likes to really make sure you finish talking. But the point of Ellie isn't to talk, it's to listen. Everything that happens in the booth is recorded by cameras and microphones. And awkward as this feels, scientists discovered that it was actually easier for soldiers to talk to Ellie than it was to talk to a human - they revealed more. Jody Mitic says he experienced this firsthand.

MITIC: I think the question she asked me was is there anything you regret from your time in Afghanistan? And I broke into a story that I was driving in a convoy through Kabul, and there was a woman in the middle of the road begging for money, and she had an infant in her arms that looked dead to me. And I've always regretted that I didn't stop the convoy and - just to check on her. I regret not taking some kind of action at that moment. And she got it out of me without even trying.

SMITH: But getting people to open up is only half of what Ellie does. While they're opening up, Ellie analyzes them to look for signs of depression or PTSD. So when she asks me a question...

ELLIE: Tell me about the hardest decision you've ever had to make.

SMITH: OK, wow, you just, like, really go right into it? OK, the hardest decision I've ever had to make...

Ellie's not analyzing what I say, she's analyzing how I say it - collecting data on my expressions, my micro expressions, the tone of my voice. I actually saw a video of myself and what Ellie sees, and it was crazy. It had projected a blue, webbed grid over my face outlining my mouth, my eyes, my eyebrows, my head. Ellie was tracking everything I did with my face and body. And all of this data is collected and compared to a database of soldiers who have returned from combat. Skip Rizzo is one of Ellie's creators. He says sometimes expressions are enough.

SKIP RIZZO: Contrary to popular belief, depressed people smile as many times as non-depressed people, but their smiles are less robust and of less duration. It's almost like polite smiles rather than, you know, real, robust, coming from your inner-soul kind of a smile.

SMITH: Ellie seems to be working. Researchers did studies pitting Ellie against psychologists, and in some of the cases, Ellie did a better job detecting signs of PTSD than people did. And the allure for the military is that there could be hundreds of Ellies screening tens of thousands of soldiers for signs of mental issues. And, if Jody Mitic is a good example, the soldiers might be OK with that.

Do you think that a computer has an edge over a person in this particular case?

MITIC: Yeah, because even a lot of therapists, you can see it in their eyes when you start talking about some of the grislier details of stuff that you might've seen or done - they are having a reaction whereas Ellie seemed to just be listening.

SMITH: As good as Ellie is, right now she's strictly for diagnosis. The idea is once Ellie's out in the field, she'll find soldiers who are having a problem, and then a human will take it from there. Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

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