Researchers in the Netherlands are developing an online computer-generated 'virtual counsellor', dubbed a 'chat-bot' to help smokers to kick the habit. Betsy van Dijk and her colleagues at the University of Twente, together with a Dutch anti-smoking organisation called Stivoro, hope that the anonymity of the web, together with twenty-four hour access to their virtual life coach, will help more smokers to quit. The team are planning a female chat-bot who will respond, with the same answers and facial expressions as those used by real-life counsellors at Stivoro, to questions and confessions tapped into a chat-box by nicotine-craving would-be quitters. But the idea isn't just a pipe-dream; indeed virtual life-coaches are developing something of a track record including pursuading elderly people to take more exercise, which was the achievement of "Laura", a chat-bot created by Boston-based researcher Timothy Bickmore. Meanwhile, if the quit-smoking programme is a success, the team are planning to wheel out a raft of counsellors tailored to help with other problems including phobias and alcoholism.


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