This chatbot will help you face death

When you’ve reached the end of your life and are staring your own mortality in the face, it might seem hard to believe that a robotic sidekick could help soothe your existential angst. But that’s exactly what a new chatbot was able to do, according to a new study.

Researchers from Boston Medical Center and Northeastern University recruited 44 men and women age 55 and up and let them talk to a 3-D virtual end-of-life counselor — or “agent” — who offered them a series of multiple choice question and answer prompts “on topics related to palliative care” such as creating a last will and testament, selecting a healthcare proxy, and making funeral arrangements — and found that users responded overwhelmingly positively to it, they wrote in the study, including one sub-group whom the chatbot asked about their religious beliefs.

People who participated in the study reported feeling a drop in their overall anxiety after talking to the chatbot, including feeling some relief from their fear of death, researchers found. They also expressed more willingness to create a will, according to the study.

Still, the research subjects said when it came time to really prepare for the end, they’d probably look to a real human over a virtual one — with 12 of the 44 participants saying they would seek out another person to complete their arrangements.

“Like I said it was nice talking to Tanya about it, but as for specifics in the end I need someone who [is] like the person who’s going to be doing this for me,” one person said.

The chatbot was also programmed with information to be able to counsel patients who identify as Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist and Sikh — as well as for atheists, spiritual humanists and secular humanists, researchers wrote.

In one sample exchange, the chatbot prompted a religious discussion by asking, “I am really interested in the relationship between religion and spirituality. Do you consider yourself spiritual, religious, both, or neither?”

When told that the user identified as Jewish, the chatbot responded, “I wish I knew more about Jewish traditions. Were you raised religiously?”

Patients said the chatbot’s interest in their religion made her “interesting” and prompted them to think more deeply about their faith.

“I guess what I liked best was what she made me think about spirituality and religion,” one user wrote, according to the study.

The researchers plan to continue the study, expanding it to a six-month longitudinal study in which users will be prompted to do activities that could help them feel better — like physical exercise or mindfulness practice — along with spiritual counseling and stress reduction.