virtual medicine

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Study: ‘Virtual Coach’ Helps Keep Overweight People Moving

If you’ve been talking with Siri on your iPhone lately, you know how deeply natural it is to respond to a computer-generated “person” as if they were human even when you know perfectly well they’re built of nothing but bits. (I heard my 85-year-old dad tell his iPhone after a failed query the other day, “Thank you for trying.”)

Researchers had already found that patients tend to respond well to post-hospital instructions from computer-generated “discharge nurses.” Now, a new study finds that “virtual coaches” can help overweight people get more active, at least during a 12-week study.

(Of course I applaud anything that helps encourage exercise, but I’m having a dark vision at the moment: An AI-based coach built into my alarm clock, intoning, “You know you have to get up now to have time to work out, because it’s been three days and you’re up one pound and your blood sugar is a bit high from that ice cream and you know you’re hoping to fit into those jeans by Memorial Day!” On the other hand, maybe that’s what it takes…)

First, what is a virtual coach? There she is above, and Partners Healthcare’s Center for Connected Health explains in a press release:

“The Virtual Coach is a computer-animated advisor and simulated face-to-face conversation, including verbal and non-verbal communication, including goal setting, positive reinforcement, problem solving, education and social interaction. Dialogue was tailored based on the participant’s progress, current status against their goals and interaction with the Virtual Coach (i.e., asking the Virtual Coach a question or asked for help).” Continue reading