It’s called Woebot, and it’s a Facebook chatbot developed by Stanford University researchers that offers interactive cognitive behavioral therapy. “If you look at the societal need, as well as the ability of AI to help, I think that digital mental-health care checks all the boxes,” Ng says. “If we can take a little bit of the insight and empathy and deliver that, at scale, in a chatbot, we could help millions of people.” In a study they published this year in a peer-reviewed medical journal, Woebot was found to reduce the symptoms of depression in students over the course of two weeks. A chatbot might seem like a crude way to deliver therapy, especially given how clumsy many virtual helpers often are.
The very first chatbot, Eliza, developed at MIT in 1966 by Joseph Weizenbaum, was designed to mimic a “Rogerian psychologist.” Eliza used a few clever tricks to create the illusion of an intelligent conversation-for example, repeating answers back to a person or offering open-ended questions such as “In what way?” and “Can you think of a specific example?” Weizenbaum was amazed to find that people seemed to believe they were talking to a real therapist, and that some offered up very personal secrets.
“To the extent that the Woebot can replicate the way that a therapist can help explain concepts and facilitate trying out new coping skills, this approach may be even more helpful than working through a workbook,” says Michael Thase, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania and an expert on cognitive behavioral therapy.