It’s 3 a.m. and you can feel anxiety creeping up. Instead of scrolling Instagram, you could chat with Woebot, the robot therapist who lives inside your phone.
Accessing mental health services and support can be tricky — so much so that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates two-thirds of people needing professional help never access it.
But the demand is here and growing. The WHO says one in four people will suffer from mental illness at some point, making it the leading cause of disability worldwide.
A team of clinical research psychologists is addressing this gap with artificial intelligence (AI). This is how Woebot, the robot therapist, was born.
Users can download the app and chat with “him” through a series of prompts. Woebot responds with a casual tone, emojis, GIFs and concrete suggestions to help the user see things in a different light. The more someone uses the app, the more specific advice Woebot is able to provide.
“We’ve seen a lot of people say they’ve shared things with Woebot that they’ve never shared with someone else,” Alison Darcy, founder and CEO of Woebot, says in a telephone interview from her San Francisco office. “And subsequently, they are able to talk to their husband about it, or seek therapy.”
Darcy says Woebot was not designed to replace in-person therapy and human connection. Rather, she sees it as a tool to reach people earlier and in lower intensity doses.
It can also be a support while people wait to connect with mental health services.
“(In the U.S.) it takes about three months before somebody can actually get in front of a physician, and meanwhile, their mental health can deteriorate quite dramatically,” Darcy says.
“It’s crucial to be able to offer something that can, at least, stop the negative spiral.”
Darcy is a clinical research psychologist and faculty member at the Stanford School of Medicine. For years, she advocated for psychologists to partner with technology companies to build more ethical apps. She says she left academia to put her money where her mouth was by founding Woebot.
Watch Woebot interact with a user:
The app specializes in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), CBT teaches patients to identify distortions in their thinking, differentiate thoughts and facts, and consider situations from different viewpoints.
Before launching Woebot, Darcy and her team conducted a randomized controlled trial with 70 individuals between 18 and 28 years old. The study, conducted with the Stanford School of Medicine, measured symptoms of depression out of 27 points. The group that interacted with Woebot reported a drop by three points at the end of the two-week period.
Asra Sarfraz, 26, a client success manager at a Canadian tech company, heard about Woebot last year through a work acquaintance and used it for a few weeks.
“It’s not a big deal if you don’t like it, because it’s just an app,” she says. “I thought there was a lower barrier of entry than finding a therapist in person.”
We asked Instagram users about what prevents them from accessing mental health care. Here’s what they told us:
After the initial excitement, however, Sarfraz says she lost interest, forgot about the app, and ended up uninstalling it.
Unlike other apps on our phones, Woebot is not designed to keep the user engaged. Darcy says the application issues invitations but doesn’t employ any persuasive mechanisms.
Woebot is still learning. Darcy says Woebot’s creators are slowly moving over to more Natural Language Processing (NLP), which will make the conversation more organic and human-like.
Yet there are limitations to how human-like Woebot can get. Darcy says NLP can be gamed by users, like when Microsoft Tay, a Twitter chatbot, started expressing Nazi sentiments in 2016.
Darcy says this kind of AI-gone-rogue scenario is not an option for Woebot, which interacts with some vulnerable individuals. For that reason, the bot has to follow a script, even if that limits the flexibility of the conversation.
Woebot is free, for now.
The product previously cost US $39 a month after a two-week free trial. Darcy says the company took down the paywall in order to better understand users, but they will soon re-establish it.
Current users will be grandfathered, but new users will pay a subscription fee, which will allow Woebot to drive revenue.
“We really want to move towards being a sustainable business,” says Darcy.
To that end, the company announced $8 million in initial funding from venture capital in a press release last year.