I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but
I’ve been seeing a virtual therapist.
It’s called Woebot, and it’s a Facebook
chatbot developed by Stanford University
researchers that o;ers interactive cognitive
behavioral therapy. Andrew Ng, a prominent figure who led e;orts to develop and
apply the latest AI technologies at Google
and Baidu, is now lending his backing to
the project by joining the board of directors
of the company o;ering Woebot’s services.
“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 [of a real thera-
pist] and deliver that, at scale, in a chatbot,
we could help millions of people.”
For a few days I tried out its advice for
managing thought processes and for deal-
ing with depression and anxiety. While
I don’t think I’m depressed, I found the
experience positive—impressive given how
annoying I find most chatbots to be.
“Younger people are the worst served by
our current systems,” says Alison Darcy, a
clinical research psychologist who came
up with the idea for Woebot while teach-
ing at Stanford in July 2016. “It’s also very
stigmatized and expensive.”
Depression is certainly a big problem.
It is now the leading form of disability in
the U.S., and 50 percent of U.S. college
students report su;ering from anxiety or
depression. Darcy and colleagues tried
several different prototypes on college
volunteers, and they found the chatbot
approach to be most e;ective. In a study
they published in 2017 in a peer-reviewed
medical journal, Woebot was found to
reduce the symptoms of depression in stu-
dents over the course of two weeks.
In my own testing, I found Woebot to
be surprisingly good at what it does. A chatbot might seem like a crude way to deliver
therapy, especially given how clumsy many
virtual helpers often are. But Woebot works
smoothly thanks to some pretty impressive
natural-language technology. The program
states up front that no person will see your
answers, but it also o;ers ways of reaching someone if your situation is serious.
I mostly used predefined answers that it
o;ered me, but even when I strayed from
the script a little, it didn’t get tripped up.
You are guided through conversations
with Woebot, but the system is able to
understand a pretty wide range of answers.
It checks in with you every day and directs
you through the steps. For example, when
I tried telling Woebot I was stressed about
work, the bot o;ered ways of reframing my
feelings to make them seem more positive.
The emergence of a real AI therapist
is, in a sense, pretty ironic. 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 exam-
ple, repeating answers back to a person or
o;ering open-ended questions such as “In
what way?” and “Can you think of a spe-
cific example?” Weizenbaum was amazed
to find that people seemed to believe they
were talking to a real therapist, and that
some o;ered up very personal secrets.
Darcy also says both Eliza and Woe-
bot are e;ective because conversation is
a natural way to receive emotional sup-
port. She adds that people seem happy to
suspend their disbelief, and seem to enjoy
talking to Woebot as if it were a real thera-
pist. “People talk about their problems for
a reason,” she says. “Therapy is conversa-
tional.” —Will Knight
Andrew Ng Has a Chatbot That
Can Help with Depression
Woebot combines cognitive behavioral therapy with advances in natural language
to create a virtual counselor.
Robot for heavy labor
TO MARKE T Say hello to Guardian GT, which wants to take the strain out of
your manual labor. This mean-looking machine from Sarcos
Robotics is designed to give you superhuman strength. Its pair
of seven-foot arms, each able to lift 500 pounds, is controlled
with eerie smoothness by a human. The controller provides
force feedback so that the operator can feel what’s happening—
though it takes only five pounds of force, instead of the full 1,000.
The arms are scaled like those of a human in a bid to make the
system intuitively easy to use. Sarcos says it’s designed to per-
form tasks like emptying massive disposal bins or moving huge
metal pipes. —Jamie Condli;e