There are times when artificial intelligence can be a more effective therapist than a human one. Virtual beings don’t get tired and frustrated, and they’re especially good in training scenarios where repetition is required. This is even more true with certain populations, like those with autism, military personnel with PTSD, and those recovering from trauma.
Dr. Skip Rizzo, Director of Medical VR at USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) has pioneered the use of emerging technologies in these scenarios for over two decades. PCMag has interviewed him several times about: VR-based exposure therapy for PTSD sufferers; virtual human coaches for veterans easing back into civilian life; VR for pain management; and, more recently, a Magic Leap-based virtual career coach for people with autism.
Professor Rizzo’s latest venture is Second Chance, which deploys virtual humans to counsel recently paroled juvenile offenders using augmented reality headsets. People who have been incarcerated face not only prejudice (and fear) on the outside, but struggle to establish personal ties and find gainful employment upon release. As we heard from The Last Mile’s Kenyatta Leal, who served 19 years in San Quentin, the quicker someone can build a crime-free existence, the less likely they are to rescind and return to the criminal justice system.
(Photo: Branimir Kvartuc)
An initial trial of Second Chance started in December 2018, and a second is set to begin next week. We spoke to Dr. Rizzo to learn more.
Dr. Rizzo, great to talk with you again. Tell us about Second Chance, its mission and goals.
Second Chance leverages our Virtual Interactive Training Agent (VITA) platform, which we’ve already deployed for people in autism, and veterans, in the area of job interview training with virtual characters/humans. With this new project, we’re adapting it to the juvenile offenders population. Our system gives people who about to get released on parole a way to hone their job interviewing skills. We know that gainful employment is a way to improve recidivism rates. Our overarching mission, at USC/ICT, within the Medical VR lab, is to advance technology for prosocial ways, and apply it directly for the good for society.
How does Second Chance work?
We have six virtual humans, either interacted with via a flat screen monitor, a VR HMD or AR goggles. A user sits in front of them and goes through repeated exposure to job interview-style scenarios. Each virtual human can be set at one of three different levels (soft touch, to neutral, and/or hostile). For each population (autism, veterans, offenders), we change the character, content and context, so it’s user-specific.
I remember when I saw a demo at the Veterans Administration, the virtual human helped former service personnel answer tricky questions about their experience in active combat.
Right. Because it’s not always easy to sit in front of a prospective employer who asks you direct questions like: “Did you kill anyone over there in Iraq?”
If you have a short fuse you might well blow the interview and lose the job opportunity.
Exactly. It’s the same with the offender population. You’ve got to give them the chance to frame the reason for their incarceration and “sell themselves” as an ex-prisoner who’s ready to become a good employee. Especially someone who has been in youth detention and never gone on a job interview before. By practicing with the VITA platform, they can test out responses and persuade an employer they’re now rehabilitated, and ready for life on the outside.
Who’s funding Second Chance?
We’re collaborating with our long-time partner, the Dan Marino Foundation, who we’ve worked with before on VITA projects, especially for people with autism, as that’s their main focus. The Department of Justice [in Florida] has given us seed funding and we’re about to start trials there next week.
We last spoke when you were at the Magic Leap developer conference. Can you talk about how you’re using AR—as opposed to VR and flat screen—for Second Chance?
The AR version is great because, wearing the Magic Leap goggles, or other AR glasses, you can interact with our virtual humans layered on top of a real environment. For example, in a real room, across from them is a real desk. It all helps with the authenticity of the experience. For me, augmented reality lends itself to developing a whole range of “social skills obstacle courses” to prep people for situations they might face in real life, testing them in a safe environment first.
Tell us more about your social skills obstacle course?
Sure, well, this might include sitting inside a real cubicle, and having a virtual human pop their head over the side, asking you questions, just as if your boss dropped by. We’ve found that, in prior trials, people with autism, for example, are not great at negotiating surprises, but work situations are full of them and they need to be prepared. Repeated testing helps build confidence.
The AR tests give them a ‘muscle memory’ so they’re not freaked out when it happens IRL?
Right. You could also use it to train people, especially those who have been institutionalized inside single-sex environments, about what’s acceptable behavior at work, and what’s not. With virtual humans acting out roles, AR goggles/glasses track user’s eye movements and head position. So we can tell, for example, when someone is in a tricky gender-based encounter, if they’re not maintaining eye contact, but looking at an inappropriate body part.
Sounds like a much better tech-savvy solution than those boring (and generally useless) corporate sexual harassment training videos.
With AR everything is trackable and measurable; we can really help people with these systems. VITA is a great way to let people “train” for life on the outside, or unfamiliar situations.
What’s the next step with Second Chance? And are you looking to expand beyond Florida?
The Dan Marino Foundation has VITA installed on their system, in Florida, now. So it’s just a matter of going through all the protocols so we can bring it into the prison facility. After the trials in Florida, yes, we’d like to go wider with the VITA and AR project in 2019 and beyond.