The woebots are coming

Well, I suppose some people would find it more attractive. Some do prefer to access counselling online, talking to a counsellor by means of live chat. In fact Relate, the UK’s biggest relationship charity, provided 15,000 online counselling sessions last year, and the service was so popular that there was demand for twice that number. The need is clearly there and this seems to be one way to meet it. Aidan Jones, chief executive of Relate, is quoted as saying, ‘Our counsellors tell me because it is more anonymous, people will start to explain what their issue is faster than if they were in a counselling room.’ Online chat appears to offer a ‘safe distance’ between counsellor and counsellee which cuts down on embarrassment and reduces barriers to sharing difficult issues.

In fact the next stage in anonymity is being contemplated – so-called ‘woebots’, robot counsellors which remove the need for any human involvement. Developments in Artificial Intelligence (AI) mean that these ‘chatbots’ can interact with human individuals or couples to offer a kind of help in sorting out relationship difficulties. This would be most readily provided where counselling consists mainly of reflecting back in different or clearer terms to the counsellee what he has just said. If counselling is to be non-directive, as some approaches insist it must be, then maybe robots could do all that’s needed. It is not that services like Relate are seeking to dispense with human counsellors entirely, but they do aim to offer a range of possibilities, including face to face contact, discussion via web cam, live chats and also robots. If it can be done, you can be sure someone will offer it.

Such developments ought to give Christians pause for thought, especially pastors and elders and any called to a distinctively caring ministry. Our culture may be more inhibited where expression of emotion is concerned, and the person who quickly pours out his or her problems to almost total strangers is an embarrassment to most of us, but perhaps there are lessons to be learned. We are called to bear one another’s burdens and we are to show the love of Christ to those still outside the kingdom. But how comfortable do even those within the kingdom feel about sharing burdens? How ready would they be to open up to those provided by the Lord to care for them in the congregation? Might they more easily confide in strangers? Might the anonymity of a woebot prove attractive if one were available? Can we dismiss the possibility out of hand?

Questions of trustworthiness and approachability inevitably loom large when the burdens of others are to be dealt with. Can the Lord’s people trust one another to deal wisely and confidentially with whatever is confided to them? In a small church, often closely interrelated, that is a real issue. If people hear the business of others being freely discussed, why would they conclude that their confidences will be respected? Before sensitive information is shared, the prospective helper or counsellor will be carefully weighed up: is this someone who will listen to me with sympathy and understanding (but not agreeing with me simply to be ‘nice’), and will whatever I say be kept confidential? If the answer to either question is ‘No’ then burdens will not be shared, or some other place to share them will be found. As pastors and elders in particular weigh up the condition of their people, they may easily forget that the people are also weighing them up and drawing conclusions about how readily they would seek help from them. It is a privilege to be the recipient of burdens and concerns that have sometimes been shared with no-one else, not even close friends, but it is a privilege that must be earned.

Increasingly the church is regarded as having nothing to offer as far as dealing with the hard issues of life are concerned. Recourse to a minister, common in earlier days, has often been replace by visiting a GP, adding to his burdens and perhaps taking him beyond his competence, especially in an appointment of a few minutes’ duration. Before the woebots take over, God’s people, and especially the leaders of God’s people, need to manifest the Christ-like love, compassion, wisdom and conviction that will draw the burdened and offer them the grace of our all-sufficient Saviour.

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