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'Virtual veteran' helps prepare social workers to talk to the real thing

USC is developing a virtual patient to help train social workers and counselors for working with veterans. Using artificial intelligence technology and video game graphics, researchers have created a fictitious Marine named Staff Sergeant Alamar Castilla, who will give you different answers depending on what you ask him.
Sanden Totten/KPCC
Researchers at USC have developed a virtual patient to help train social workers and counselors for working with veterans. Using artificial intelligence technology and video game graphics, researchers have created a fictitious Mike Baker, who will give you different answers depending on what you ask him.

A new program from USC lets social workers hone their counseling skills by interacting with a computer simulated veteran.

The first of its kind technology aims to improve how caregivers relate to the growing number of vets struggling with mental health issues.

Imagine walking into a room that looks like a therapist's office and seeing a life-sized projection of a young man staring back at you.

That's Mike Baker, a hyper-realistic computer simulation developed at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies.

He blinks, he fidgets, and social workers can run through hundreds of different scenarios by asking him questions about his life.

USC's Nathan Graeser helped program Baker as part of his work with Center for Innovation and Research.

As a chaplain with the National Guard, Graeser was able to help give Baker an authentic personality and backstory.

"Mike Baker is a National Guardsman. He’s modeled after a guy who just got back from Iraq," Graeser explained.

The technology is called the Motivational Interviewing Learning Environment and Simulation, or MILES for short.

It's so realistic, that even Mike Baker's posture and tics reflect what he's feeling at any given moment.

"And actually that'll change if you start to say things he feels uncomfortable with. He’ll start shaking his head and start looking more agitated," Graeser noted.

(A video explaining the technology behind Mike Baker and MILES)

Only about half of veterans struggling with mental health issues say they’re getting the care they need.

Part of the problem is that not all service providers know how to work with the unique challenges facing today’s vets.

That's where Mike Baker comes in. The computer simulated veteran is a teaching tool allowing caregivers a chance to learn strategies to help this often at-risk population.

It’s estimated one of every five veterans suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder or depression, and one in 10 have had suicidal thoughts.

To speak with Mike Baker, caregivers use a special microphone. Ask him how he is, and he might reply: "I’m good. Look, uh, this is my wife’s idea."

After every interaction, a separate screen prompts users with three questions to ask as a follow up, like a choose your own adventure game for social workers.

Topics can range from domestic or work issues to problems with violence or alcohol.

Inexperienced caregivers may have trouble getting Mike Baker to respond with anything more than short, terse answers. To get him to open up, users need to reflect back what he is telling them, Graeser said.

There are also some aspects of the program that are very specific to working with veterans.

For instance, at some point Mike Baker will always turn the table on the user and ask: “Did you ever serve?”

"Not all social workers who work with vets are going to be vets themselves, so they have to think, about what are they going to say when a vet asks them that," Graeser

Graeser said it’s best to be honest and not assume you can relate to what a veteran is going though if you haven’t served.

(Nathan Graeser of USC's Center for Innovation and Research)

Some of Mike Baker's responses are sarcastic or even a bit hostile. It can unnerve a user, but that's the point, according to Anthony Hassan, USC professor and co-developer of this project.

"To deal with your first suicidal client with the avatar, to deal with your first issue of confidentiality with an avatar, ...  is extremely useful and beneficial," Hassan said.

He noted that veterans often wait until it's almost too late to seek help because the military has trained them to carry burdens quietly.

"When they come into your office, you should know that they are really at the brink of crisis," Hassan said.

Another issue many veterans carry over from service is a fear that a negative assessment from a clinical worker can cause them to lose their job. Hassan said that may be the case for some positions in the military, but it’s rarely true in civilian life.

All of this can mean caregivers may only get one chance to convince a veteran they can help.

"It’s really important for us to connect with the veteran when they come in the door," Hassan said, adding: "That’s what our program is about, and that’s what this simulation is about."

So far, about 60 Veterans Affairs employees have trained with the Mike Baker program and there are plans for more caregivers to do so as well.

Eventually, Hassan would like to see Mike Baker go global via the World Wide Web.

He noted that way, students around the country could learn from the program any hour of the day.

This piece is part of KPCC's ongoing coverage of issues affecting veterans for Veteran's Day 2014. See more of our coverage at