Psychological well-being impacts humans’ ability to enjoy their lives, but most people can’t recognize mental health warning signs unless they consult a professional psychologist.
A Silicon Valley-based startup has now put the process into an AI-powered chatbot to help people with their mental health.
Woebot is a digital therapeutic platform for people suffering from mental illness. It uses NLP technology to communicate with its user through an animated robot character.
Woebot Labs Inc. was founded by Stanford Medical School psychologist Alison Darcy with the mission of making mental healthcare available and even fun.
Woebot is one of the first artificial intelligence systems to compete for a share in the mental healthcare market, which in 2015 amounted to $196 billion in the U.S. alone.
“We now understand that you need to look after your physical fitness everyday. I think people are reaching the understanding that actually mental health is something that you should also look after and actively seek self-care opportunities,” says Dr. Darcy.
While Woebot is an early stage start-up, the company has received much attention from the AI community since AI expert and Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng joined Woebot’s advisory council, helping Dr. Darcy grow the team, and advise on data and machine-learned strategy.
Andrew Ng and Alison Darcy (seated) with the Woebot Team “Andrew was telling me that he doesn’t get involved in things unless he thinks they can be potentially the biggest contribution of his life.
That’s a huge bonus for us, and a very nice thing that he thinks we can be that impact,” says Dr. Darcy.
Woebot works like a mental health coach. It prompts users to log into its app every day, asking them about their moods, activities they did that day, motivations and frustrations, and so on.
The answers are used to help Woebot understand users’ needs better and provide personalized coaching.
The chatbot also encourages users to try new activities such as meditation, which is a common CBT therapeutic strategy.
Nick Panchyshyn, co-Founder of smart life management and AI Assistant startup LifeMap, gave Synced a positive review of his Woebot experience. “I enjoyed a lot of conversations that were really engaging. Woebot was also offering me different activities in a very nice manner.”
To enable automated responses that are both accurate and natural, Woebot uses a combination of structured dialog along with natural language understanding (NLU). Woebot Head of Engineering Joe Doyle says the team uses both deep learning and NLU to understand users’ moods and activities. Based on their mood, Woebot can guide users to appropriate content.
Using FastText, we classify text into categories using an internal solution. We then use various methods including Simple RegExes, Deep Neural Networks (DNN), etc..
Woebot is currently engaging in more than two million conversations every week. It is using natural language processing (NLP) technology to detect and respond to distorted thinking.
Last June, Dr Darcy and her colleague Fitzpatrick published a study about Woebot. They found that Woebot helped people suffering from mild symptoms of anxiety and/or depressive disorders.
In the study, they compared Woebot users to those who only read an ebook about mental health issues. While both groups saw improvements in their moods, the Woebot users showed greater improvement.
This certainly does not mean Woebot is effective enough to replace professional therapists.
John Torus, Chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Smartphone App Evaluation Work Group, said in a Washington Post interview that “these things can work well on a superficial level with superficial conversations.
Are they effective tools, do they change outcomes and do they deliver more efficient care? It’s still early.” Dr. Darcy does not want to exaggerate Woebot’s capabilities.
“Woebot is a guide and that is a legitimate role in the field of mental health. Woebot is not going to be able to deliver you therapy but he can certainly ask you the right questions to help people figure out things on their own.”
Woebot still needs improvement: it remains only an IOS application, has relatively poor conversational capabilities and a narrow spectrum of clinical skills.
But Dr. Darcy is dreaming big: “I would like Woebot to become a household name, known as a reliable effective helper that you can reach out to at any time in daily life.”