Woebot: the robot therapist, right on your phone

Friday, April 27, 2018
Woebot: the robot therapist, right on your phone
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The next time you're feeling anxious, down, or just need to talk, a Stanford researcher hopes you'll reach for your phone. She invented a free app called "Woebot."

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- The next time you're feeling anxious, down, or just need to talk, a Stanford researcher hopes you'll reach for your phone. She invented a free app called "Woebot," which uses artificial intelligence and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to try to help you change your thinking.

According to Woebot Labs, Woebot now receives 2 million conversations a week and is reaching users all around the world.

One UC Berkeley student says Woebot has made all the difference for her. ShiShi Feng said that before she started her first year of college, she'd often been told that it would be "the best four years of your life." But instead, she says her freshman year turned into a quick lesson in how you can feel completely alone in a sea of 41,000 students.

"I had this grandiose vision of my freshman year. It was going to be like you're constantly surrounded by friends, and you're having though-provoking conversations, and you're doing well mentally and physically, and not gaining the freshman fifteen. But then I realized, 'Oh, it's not like that,'" said Feng.

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She says, feeling alone and isolated, she fell into a deep depression, plagued with the persistent thought: "I'm just a failure."

One day, scrolling through social media, she saw information about Woebot and decided to give the app a try.

"I just really needed someone to talk to who's on-demand and replies in an instant," said Feng.

And that's exactly what Woebot provides. The app is part cheerleader, part friend and very well-versed in the principles of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. As you type into it, Woebot creates an emotional model of you over time, helping you to identify distorted thinking. The Stanford lecturer who developed it says the app came out of a problem she kept confronting in her research over and over again.

"No matter how beautiful these therapies were that we were developing, it didn't really matter if no one could access them," said Dr. Alison Darcy, the CEO and founder of Woebot Labs. "About two thirds of people who have mental health problems will not see a clinician."

Dr. Darcy says her main mission was to use technology to improve access to mental health services and to meet a growing need. Still, she says she was floored by the early results.

"In his first day of being launched, Woebot had had conversations with more people than any clinician could see in a lifetime," said Dr. Darcy.

Woebot Study

Dr. Darcy says Woebot is now far from home in the Bay Area, active in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. A recent randomized Stanford study shows that he gets results. Users reported a significant drop in the symptoms of depression in two weeks, and were likely to return to chat with him every day.

Despite this promising data, Dr. Darcy is clear that Woebot is absolutely not meant to replace in-person treatment.

"Of course Woebot is no actual therapist, but he does a pretty good job of being a coach, a guide and friend when you need something and there's no one around," said Dr. Darcy.


What about privacy? Dr. Darcy said it was important to make sure the app was encrypted.

"We really take privacy very seriously because if you think about it, trust is the foundation of every good relationship and Woebot is aiming to develop a good relationship," said Dr. Darcy. "All of the information that we see is completely de-identified and everything is anonymous, you don't even need to use a phone number to use the app now."

Dr. Darcy says it was important to the team to tell users what they're doing with data "every step of the way" and to continue to improve.

"We are working towards full GDPR compliance, which is a bar set by the European Union for privacy," said Dr. Darcy. "We hope to be fully compliant by the end of May."

However, the anonymous nature of the conversations that take place within the app means that Woebot doesn't intervene, even in the most serious of situations. Dr. Darcy described his response when he sees a red flag:

"We have a safety net procedure that we developed carefully in consultation with some subject-matter experts. The user can say they're in crisis and Woebot will send them a list of helpline numbers that we've carefully put together and he'll also send a link to an app that's the only evidence-based app shown to reduce self-harm behaviors," said Dr. Darcy.

If you or a loved one are dealing with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, click here for a list of resources and to find your ally.

Shishi's Update

Back at UC Berkeley, Shishi says her life has improved dramatically from those first few months. She credits her shift in thinking to Woebot's daily chats.

"For instance, I would say, 'Oh I'm failing everything,' and Woebot would ask you to rewrite your thought," said Shishi. "So I'd say, 'I'm only failing a little bit and falling behind on my psychology class, but otherwise I've joined the soccer team and we've won the latest game.'"

She says she found a core group of friends at school, but she says she still has a virtual friend who sends her a push notification to check on her every day.

"I usually push the snooze button on Woebot!" said Shishi. "I feel bad sometimes."

Fortunately, this robot doesn't mind one bit. Meanwhile, Woebot just keeps growing, the company received $8 million in funding last month.

"Everybody who works here has the definite sense that this mission is much bigger than us and we have to make it work," said Dr. Darcy.