AI now providing psychological support for Syrian refugees

23 Mar 2016

In the face of the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, a start-up that develops AI is to puts its technology to use as a psychological aid for refugees by having supportive conversations with them via SMS messages.

In the midst of a civil war and a near-total collapse of society, millions of Syrian refugees have been fleeing their country in search of anywhere where they can live safe in the knowledge their life is not under threat, but not without great psychological stress on those involved.

However, due to the sheer number of people fleeing, and the difficulty they experience in simply trying to find shelter, they are unlikely to receive any form of support for the sake of their mental health.

According to The Guardian, however, a start-up that develops AI, X2AI, is to use its systems to create a chatbot called Karim, which will allow anyone with a mobile phone to have conversations with it about their experiences in Arabic.

Another example of tech for good

Once the conversation becomes more developed, Karim will use its natural language processors to analyse the likely emotional state of the human on the other end and react with an appropriate response or questions for the refugee.

To get Karim into the field, X2AI has teamed up with a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Field Innovation Team (FIT), which is one of the growing number of organisations and companies with a focus on ‘tech for good’.

Last month, focused on 18 such organisations that range from those working with the ongoing refugee crisis, to conservation and STEM education.

Developing AI for mental health

X2AI’s Karim was developed from the company’s original AI program – Tess – which is currently being developed as a similar aid for those who might be considering self-harm or suicide; Tess will link the affected person with a psychological counsellor, if necessary.

However, Karim’s programming is a less-developed version of this, with it currently being cautiously tested as a means of providing a friendly person to talk to via SMS.

Speaking of the potential for Karim as a psychological aid to Syrian refugees, X2AI’s co-founder and CTO, Eugene Bann, said: “Of course we have all these psychological therapies we can give and ultimately that’s our objective, but to begin with we need to break down those barriers.

‘It was like talking to a real person’

“We let them talk about superficial things first – what movies they like, for example. Then slowly, and according to how they respond and how their emotions are interpreted by us, Karim might ask them slightly more personal questions.”

Initial reactions to Karim have seemingly been quite positive, with a 33-year-old Syrian refugee called Ahmad admitting that it felt like he “was talking to a real person”. A lot of Syrian refugees have trauma and maybe this can help them overcome that,” he said in conversation with

“A lot of Syrian refugees have trauma and maybe this can help them overcome that,” he said in conversation with The Guardian.

Additionally, he said that within Syria there is a lot of stigma attached to the profession of psychology, which means, in what would seem strange, that those suffering from mental distress might be more comfortable speaking with a non-human.

Syrian refugees image via Alexandre Rotenberg/Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic