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In Canada alone, the economic burden of mental illness is estimated at $51 billion per year, which includes health care costs, loss of productivity and health-related lower quality of life . According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression. This disease can become a serious health condition: it can make a person suffer greatly, and function poorly at work, at school and with family members. Moreover, at its worst, depression can lead to suicide. Close to 800,000 people commit suicide each year. It is the second leading cause of death among people aged between 15 and 29 . Also, there is a global shortage of mental health professionals, which means it could take weeks for people to get help.
While the chatbot artificial intelligence (AI) can never replace a human therapist, it can deliver affordable counseling to millions of people. A team of psychologists and AI experts from Stanford University created a talk therapy chatbot called Woebot. It can chat briefly on a daily basis ̶ in English for now ̶ via Facebook Messenger, either on a desktop or mobile device. Woebot uses conversations, mood tracking, videos and “word games” to help people manage their mental health. Each interaction begins with a general inquiry about context and mood as, for example, “What are you doing now?” and “How do you feel right now?” Users can respond by writing words or inserting emojis to describe how they are feeling . Woebot delivers a mood management program based on Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), an effective form of therapy that focuses on understanding the relationship between thoughts and behavior. Its purpose is not to heal trauma or ancient psychological wounds . In the first session, Woebot will briefly explain CBT, notify users that it is not a replacement for therapy and encourage them to call 911 for emergencies. The purpose of CBT is to target the thoughts and behaviors that affect our well-being and impact how well we cope with stress and difficult situations.
The goal of CBT is to develop thoughts and behavior that promote better moods, stronger self-esteem and a richer quality of life. According to a randomized controlled trial at Stanford University, Woebot was able to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in 2 weeks .
The Challenges of Woebot
Chatbots represent a great challenge for AI and Natural Language Processing. How should Woebot respond when a user says “I’m surrounded by people but feel invisible to them all” or “I’m trying not to use” or writes “😳”? Can it understand the meaning of the word “use” in that context, or an emoji to describe a feeling ? So far, Woebot offers a lot of predefined answers to the users which makes it easier for the chatbot to follow the conversation.
Furthermore, Woebot is the only chatbot with peer-reviewed clinical data. However, using those results to claim it can significantly reduce depression may expose the chatbot to legal recourse.
Another challenge with Woebot is that it is only available on Facebook Messenger. Since Woebot isn’t a licensed medical provider, conversations with it are not protected by medical data privacy and security regulations. The Woebot team has built a firewall on their end to keep all users anonymous. However, Facebook knows exactly who you are and it owns all your conversations.
Marie-Anne Valiquette obtained a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering at the École de technologie supérieure (ÉTS) in Montreal. She lives in Silicon Valley, California where she studies artificial intelligence through online platforms like Udacity and deeplearning.ai.
Program : Mechanical Engineering