Wednesday December 13, 2017

Would you talk to a robot therapist? Woebot is accepting new patients

Dr. Woebot, a talking therapist, checks in with you every day to ask how you're feeling and if it thinks you're feeling depressed or anxious, then it will try to help.

Dr. Woebot, a talking therapist, checks in with you every day to ask how you're feeling and if it thinks you're feeling depressed or anxious, then it will try to help. (@drwoebot)

Listen 25:21

Story transcript

"How about your mood? How do you feel right now?"

Meet "Woebot," the chatbot that uses cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

Alison Darcy, founder and CEO of Woebot Labs, said she created Woebot to make "all of the best psychotherapies and best psychological tools that we have more available to people and more accessible to people."

Woebot can encourage people to engage with them everyday, Darcy told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"Humans … one of the things that's so easy for us is is that we converse. We talk and we also talk about our problems."

"I think conversation feels really normal to people ...  I think that this made a lot more sense for people — particularly if you are obsessed in the moment, something that's extremely easy to use is important," said Darcy.

Darcy described Woebot as more automation than artificial intelligence (AI).

She said her team discovered that talking to a quirky, friendly, fictional robot was easier than having to read a CBT book.

"He [Woebot] uses the answers to basically guide where, you know, what he will ask next. So if somebody says, you know, I'm feeling really anxious, Woebot can see that word and say, 'OK, well, now I'm going to go to all of the tools that I have for anxiety,' and so he may suggest a breathing exercise or a mindfulness exercise."

FB Woebot

(Facebook)

The answers help guide what will be asked next, said Darcy.

"Woebot's guiding somebody else through a process of feeling better in the moment when they need that help most."

Darcy said her team initially designed a robot for college students who were struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. But her researchers found that older people were getting "a kick" out of using the robots.

"I often tell people we have more users in their 50s than we do have teenagers."

She said her team did a controlled trial with 70 young adults between the ages of 18 and 28 and randomized them to receive either two weeks of talking to robots or two weeks of what they called an information-only control group that received an e-book.

"After the two weeks, we observed that people who talk to robots reduced significantly their levels of depression," said Darcy. "Both groups significantly reduced anxiety as well."

The participants said it felt more like a friend checking in on them, according to Darcy.

But the chatbots will "never be a replacement for human therapists because there's no replacement for human connection," said Darcy.

"The point is that there's not enough human mental health coaches or mental health professionals to go around, and, you know, we're seeing such great increases now in people struggling with mental health and that we just feel like what Woebot can be just something in between."

As for questions about people forming emotional attachments to Woebot, Darcy said, "I can't imagine that happening because Woebot is just not sophisticated."


Listen to the full conversation above — including Cosmin Munteanu, co-director of the Technologies for Aging Gracefully Lab at University of Toronto Mississauga. 


​This segment was produced by The Current's Julian Uzielli and Kristin Nelson.