A recent conversation with Digital President Whitfield:
Hey there, I’m Digital President Whitfield. What’s your name?”
“My name is Steve. How are you?”
“Hi, Steve. I’m doing well today. How can I help you?”
“I’m going through a breakup, and I’m pretty sad.”
“Aw, I’m sorry to hear that. I know breakups can be tough. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, family, and/or counselors or CAPS (Student Counseling and Psychological Services) if you need to talk things through with someone. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Why, yes. There are many things he can share. That’s the point.
Over the summer, the real UNLV President Keith Whitfield met with the AI Media Lab team, campus experts, and students to dive deeply into themes of mental health, wellness, and mentorship.
“You’ve got students who might be anxious and you want to catch them in that moment and start to help them,” says Russ Logan, a UNLV graduate (’01 BS Recreation and Leisure Studies) and managing partner of AI Media Lab, which created the artificial-intelligence avatar program unveiled in February as Digital President Whitfield – or DPW.
Along with addtional content, technological updates to the avatar program make it increasingly responsive.
The result: Empathy, understanding, dispensing resource guidance, or just lending a digital ear to hear you out – these are among the newest humanistic dimensions layered onto the online extension of the UNLV president.
“Student mental health is top of mind for many university leaders today, but as someone with a Ph.D. in psychology, the topics really resonated with me,” said the real Whitfield. “We can now have deeper conversations with students on more topics and answer even more questions directly or, if needed, quickly refer them to the right resources.”
Created by a team led by Devon Guinn, AI Media Lab’s head of dialogue and interactivity – and activated Aug. 31, in time for the fall semester – the new enhancements have been categorized as mental health and wellness, as well as another for student mentorship.
“There are different things (DPW) should be able to help with, and does dig into, and then it kind of knows when to step aside and direct somebody directly to a resource,” Guinn says.
Or, if a student is reluctant to get personal or specific with DPW, the program recognizes the need for a nuanced answer, as in this programmed response:
“I understand completely. We don’t have to chat about it – but at the very least, I’d like to share this list of UNLV Student Wellness and Mental Health resources. It’s good to stay aware of the resources that are available to you and your friends here at school.”
In addition to those mentioned above, DPW can direct students to multiple crisis hotlines, academic support services, the student conduct office, and a host of self-help videos.
Because many issues will not require the intervention of outside services, DPW is also available to help with an issue nearly all of us are familiar with – especially students grappling with homework, exams, and the overall hustle-bustle of campus life. Again, DPW explains in a programmed response:
“If you’re looking for tips on staying calm and dealing with stress, I can tell you about my favorite deep breathing technique that can help promote wellness and calm. Would you like that?”
If, in fact, you would like that, you’ve got the right online advocate/avatar to help. The real Whitfield is a psychologist and expert on stress management. He helped develop his digital doppelganger, DPW, to share de-stressing, deep breathing techniques as well as insight on how to recognize that someone is, in fact, stressed:
“Everyone experiences stress and anxiety, so know that you’re not alone. Sometimes, you can find yourself dealing with the symptoms of stress, like headaches, lack of concentration, neck and back pain and not feeling like yourself. It’s important to identify your own personal stress manifestation. Once you realize that stress is derailing you, the knowledge gives you power to either address the root cause or engage in wellness routines that mitigate the impact of stress and promote a great sense of wellbeing in your life.”
Among the many other topics the DPW can help with – often with great specificity – are such issues as difficulty sleeping and how to deal with “imposter syndrome,” a psychological phenomenon where people, despite their experience and qualifications, feel they are fraudulent in comparison to their peers.
Along with mental health and wellness upgrades, there's an enhanced mentorship element to DPW. Guinn conducted interviews with President Whitfield and students this summer, during which they asked questions about mentorship opportunities, the president's own philosophy on mentorship, and things students can do to be mentors as they continue their career through UNLV. All of that was programmed into the avatar.
“He'll actually give you tips on being a good mentor, how to develop a strong mentor-mentee relationship and how to reach out to people if you're looking for a mentor,” Guinn says.
The Media Lab Team also launched platform updates, including a new language model that helps generate responses and makes the avatar more conversational and able to respond to a wider array of topics; an on-demand voice synthesis, allowing the voice model to speak new responses in the president’s voice; and a program to address more than 100 more topics (in addition to the 500-plus already programmed), including arts, theater, and music.
More such upgrades are in the future as Digital President Whitfield becomes integrated into campus life – and grows into an important part of it. As Logan explains:
“This is one of those things where you have AI that builds companionship with somebody because it's so visual and immersive. But at the same time, it’s nonjudgmental, confidential, and you can just talk and get things off your chest.”
Fittingly, let’s give DPW the final say, with simple words that can buoy every student: “College can be extremely challenging. But I want you to know I have the utmost
faith in you.”