A technology currently under development at the University of Southern California (USC) is using highly interactive, artificial intelligence-driven virtual patients to simulate psychological disorders – particularly those that occur most often among soldiers – and train U.S. military psychiatrists and psychologists to treat their patients more effectively.

In medical programs, specially trained actors known as "standardized patients" are sometimes employed to train medical students. The actors are able to give a consistent, predefined account of their condition, also answering questions about themselves. This allows students and trainees to practice taking a medical history and conduct a conversation with a patient.

Currently, psychology and psychiatry students don't have this luxury. They often train by role-playing with other students and supervisors, then moving on to supervised training with real patients.

That might change with a new technology developed at USC and funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, which makes a surprisingly realistic patient-therapist interaction just a few clicks away. The highly interactive virtual patients developed by Dr. Albert Rizzo at USC's Institute for Creative Technology can carry on a natural conversation with real humans and emulate the symptoms of a number of a clinical conditions, including depression and post-traumatic stress.

An initial test saw fifteen psychiatry residents carry a 15-minute interaction with a virtual patient. The software correctly recognized the therapist's voice and responded to questions, allowing the residents to perform a preliminary diagnosis. Rizzo is now integrating the feedback from this and other user tests to create the next generation of virtual patients, which promises to be even more realistic.

"As this technology continues to improve, it will have a significant impact on how clinical training is conducted in psychology and medicine," says Rizzo. His long-term plans are to expand the library of conditions that his software can emulate, so that it can be used to train psychiatry and psychology students (even those outside the military field) more effectively.

The video below shows the system at work. Remarkably, the "virtual vets" are highly interactive and seem to understand the human input reasonably well.

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