Virtual Close Encounters With Yourself  

“For more than a decade, a handful of therapists have been using virtual environments to help people to work through phobias, like a fear of heights or of public spaces. But now advances in artificial intelligence and computer modeling are allowing them to take on a wider array of complex social challenges and to gain insight into how people are affected by interactions with virtual humans — or by inhabiting avatars of themselves.
   Researchers are populating digital worlds with autonomous, virtual humans that can evoke the same tensions as in real-life encounters. People with social anxiety are struck dumb when asked questions by a virtual stranger. Heavy drinkers feel strong urges to order something from a virtual bartender, while gamblers are drawn to sit down and join a group playing on virtual slot machines. And therapists can advise patients at the very moment those sensations are felt.
   In a series of experiments, researchers have shown that people internalize these virtual experiences and their responses to them — with effects that carry over into real life.
   The emerging field, called cybertherapy, now has annual conferences and a growing international following of therapists, researchers and others interested improving behavior through the use of simulations. The Canadian military has invested heavily in virtual-reality research; so has the United States Army, which has been spending about $4 million annually on programs with computer-generated agents, for training officers and treating post-traumatic stress reactions.
   The trend has already generated a few critics, who see a possible downside along with benefits. 
   ‘Even if this approach works, there will be side effects that we can’t anticipate,’ said Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and author of “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” (Knopf, 2010). ‘And in some scenarios I would worry about defining humans down: defining what’s normal based on what we can model in virtual environments.’ 
   But most researchers say that virtual therapy is, and will remain, no more than a therapist’s tool, to be used only when it appears effective.”

See article at: NYT 23Nov10: In Cybertherapy, Avatars Assist With Healing”