Fifty years ago, an MIT professor created a chatbot that simulated a psychotherapist.
Named Eliza, it was able to trick some people into believing it was human. But it didn’t understand what it was told, nor did it have the capacity to learn on its own. The only test it had to pass was: Could it fool humans?
These days, with robotics advancing to drive cars, beat humans at chess and Go!, and replace entire workforces, Eliza’s smoke and mirrors is child’s play. Researchers now build chatbots that can listen, learn and teach cognitive behavioral therapy to humans. Forget simply simulating a psychotherapist — can a chatbot do what a therapist does, or at least come close?
A San Francisco start-up thinks so. Its chatbot, named Woebot, doesn’t replace therapists, but its creators believe it could be the next best thing to seeing one.
Delivered over Facebook Messenger, Woebot teaches users cognitive behavioral therapy skills, such as exercises that people can do to combat negative thinking and ways to manage mood disorders such as anxiety and depression.
Built by former Stanford researcher Alison Darcy and a team of psychologists, linguists and software engineers, Woebot has enormous ambition: to help an increasingly anxious, depressed and stressed population feel happier.
“Right now you can see a therapist, or you can access self-help books, and there’s nothing in between,” Darcy said. “The major gap we want Woebot to fill is the nothing.”
The current model for therapy, in which patients see a therapist once a week for an hour at a time, isn’t, in tech parlance, “scalable,” she said. A therapist can’t reach everyone at every minute of the day. For $39 a month, Woebot can.
“You can access it when you need it most,” Darcy said. “If it’s 2 a.m. and you’re having a panic attack, a physician isn’t going to be available at that time.”
Woebot sends users a message each day to check in with them, asks them about their mood and energy…