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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

New forms of "empathetic computing" are helping human users feel more comfortable in opening up to a program.

Why it matters: Our mental health has taken a major hit during the COVID-19 pandemic, while social distancing means it's harder to meet in person with therapists. That has opened a space for emotionally attuned machines to help us.

By the numbers: A survey of thousands of employees and executives released earlier this month by Oracle and the HR research and advisory firm Workplace Intelligence found 68% of people reported they would prefer to talk to a robot over their manager about stress and anxiety at work.

  • 80% said they were open to having a robot as a counselor or therapist.
  • "Workers said that robots can support their mental health better than humans because they can provide a judgment-free zone," says Dan Schawbel, managing partner of Workplace Intelligence.

Of note: In April, the FDA suspended many of its rules for digital therapeutic devices for psychiatric disorders because of the pandemic, which led to an increase in doctors prescribing new forms of digital therapy.

What's happening: Last month Maslo.ai, a startup that works on AI-driven empathetic computing, released new open-sourced toolkits that allow developers to build apps to address mental health.

  • Maslo uses signal processing techniques to "read" voice, text and even the body language of a human user to identify a baseline level for mental health.
  • "We can extract the linguistic aspects of what a person is saying, but we can also look at acoustic elements as well — volume, loudness, intonation," says Ross Ingram, Maslo's CEO.
  • That data can help Maslo's partners build better executive performance coaches, for example, or even help with online dating.

Between the lines: A study by researchers at Maslo and the University of British Columbia found that while robots overall were seen by humans as having significantly weaker qualities of mind compared to people, younger users were much more likely than older generations to see machines as potentially capable of processing emotions.

Reality check: AI cannot yet feel or process emotions in any real way, which limits the effectiveness of therapeutic robots.

Go deeper: Better ways to use — and measure — AI in medicine

Go deeper

Dec 16, 2020 - Economy & Business

A year of monumental change in the workplace

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

In less than a year, the pandemic shot us more than a decade ahead in the workplace transformation.

The big picture: The pandemic's acceleration of telecommuting has changed much more than the way we attend meetings. We'll see lasting impacts on company culture, the job market, demographics and cities.

Surprising pandemic side effect: Soaring trade deficits

Source: Census Bureau and Bureau of Economic Analysis; Chart: Axios Visuals

Inflation and jobs may get all the economic headlines, but meanwhile a big shift is taking place in the underpinnings of the world economy: The U.S. trade deficit is soaring.

What's happening: Americans' spending on imported physical goods has gone through the roof, while exports are growing slowly, making the U.S. the world's consumer of last resort.

Mike Allen, author of AM
2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Third Way: "Big Lie" could become "Big Coup"

Graphic: Third Way

Third Way, the center-left think tank, is urging fellow Democrats to respond to the Capitol riot with "the size, scope, and seriousness of a presidential campaign," co-founder Matt Bennett tells me.

Driving the news: "For the first time in U.S. history, a party must mount two parallel presidential campaigns: one to win the election, and the other to prevent its theft," Bennett said, calling this "a Paul Revere moment."