USC wants to make mental health resources more accessible to students. So they built an app for it.

It’s called Ask Ari, and it’s designed to specifically address the issues of USC students and help them streamline the process of self care. The platform was pioneered by the Office of Education and Wellness in partnership with the Institute for Creative Technologies.

Dr. Lyndsey Christoffersen, a research assistant on the Ask Ari project, said Ari is an artificial intelligence agent like Siri or Alexa. Users can ask questions like “how do I procrastinate less,” or “how can I be happier,” and Ari will provide answers and resources curated for that specific issue.

Christoffersen said more and more people seek out wellness and self-care resources -- but often end up with inaccurate or inapplicable information.

“The problem is that people are just turning to the internet and getting random stuff, like whatever has the most hits on YouTube,” she said. “You don’t know if its evidence based information, and even if it is, it doesn’t necessarily apply specifically to your situation as a student.”

Ask Ari, on the contrary, was created for USC students using fact-based, peer-reviewed information. The program creates a dialogue between students and Ari on issues on a range of topics: loneliness, sleep, hygiene, healthy communication, and the difficulties of college life.

“Within each of these areas, we have videos, activity sheets, guided audio from Mindful USC, and then the actual conversation with Ari,” said Christoffersen. “So Ari will answer your question and offer resources and then recommend related topics that you might want to talk about further.”

Dr. Ilene Rosenstein, Associate Vice Provost for Campus Wellness and Education, said that she wanted to create a platform that could help students recognize the difference between mental illness and daily stress.

“Not everybody needs counseling, the majority of people don’t,” said Rosenstein. “But that doesn’t mean they can’t be better. We want our students to thrive here.”

But Rosenstein said even if you do have a mental illness for which treatment may be necessary, the kind of self-reflection, self-awareness and behavioral modification Ask Ari encourages can greatly benefit users of the platform.

Kenneth Howard, a licensed clinical social worker and adjunct professor in the Dworak-Peck School of Social Work, said he has concerns about the use of AI in health and wellness.

“I think we have to be very careful about that,” said Howard. “If we hold the interpersonal human relationship dear, even though it’s in a professional context, then something like a bot, I think is really getting into a risky territory.”

Howard doesn’t believe bots can assess for risk the same way that human beings can.

“You can have a virtual assistant help you with running an office,” Howard said. “But when it comes to the very heart to heart connection of psychotherapy...it could leave the client very vulnerable in an emergency situation.”

Rosenstein and Christofferson, though, were clear they don’t intend Ask Ari to replace therapy.

“This is teaching people skills and increasing awareness, so you can live a better life and reach your potential,” said Rosenstein. “There is no danger in this whatsoever, because nobody is going to think that artificial intelligence is the answer to everything. But what we do believe in is that various ways of approaching things helps the student to be their best.”

Albert “Skip” Rizzo, the Director for Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies described artificial intelligence programs like Ask Ari as “training wheels” for self care.

“It turns out that people disclose more personal information when they think it's just software,” said Rizzo. “It helps a person feel comfortable, then they can say anything they want without any repercussions or worry about what the software thinks of them.”

“We have to be careful not to be scared of artificial intelligence to the point where we pass a blind eye to the potential value that it can provide,” Rizzo continued. “We just have to be cautious about how we send the message.”

The developers expect Ask Ari to be available within the next month, pending approval from Apple to launch the app. It will be available for both Android and Apple users. Until it’s launched, students can visit Ask Ari’s website to sign up for a web-based version of the software.