Woebot - Messenger's First Therapist Chatbot

"So here's how I work, I'm going to ask you about your mood and as I get to know you, I'll teach you some good stuff." - Not a phrase you'd expect to hear from a machine. Therapy relies on empathy, and last time I checked AI wasn't capable of that yet (frankly I'm not sure I want to live in a world where it is), so the idea of a therapy chatbot might seem pretty absurd. Well, it's happened anyway.

The above quote is the first thing 'Woebot' says to you upon connecting through Messenger, and then it starts asking questions. Through this, it helps you to 'recognise patterns' and leads you through what is essentially a CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) course, albeit a lot more basic. According to the researchers at Stanford who tested Woebot, it only takes two weeks of daily five minute check-ins before measurable results start coming in.

Impressive as that is, a robot is no substitute for a real living, breathing therapist, something which Woebot clarifies before you start the sessions. It's meant more as a companion to actual CBT than a complete course. Speaking as someone who has undergone CBT for real, it does play out like a kind of watered down version. You get asked the same questions about you mood and thoughts, and the bot sends videos and tips about daily attitude designed to help shoo all the negative thoughts away.

I did one session, during which the bot sent me a video about the significance of language when describing emotional states. It wasn't the most well-produced video in the world but it got the message across. The more significant thing was that the bot asked me about me mood and offered to extend the session if I felt the need to talk things through further. Given that most Messenger users are active daily, and use it on the move, this is a smart approach.

Once again, this is not a worthy trade off for a real therapist, but even being able to vent your issues with a chatbot has its merits. They haven't been around for long enough for any real, peer-reviewed evidence on their effectiveness to come out, but it certainly can't do any harm. If you're feeling anxious or depressed but aren't sure about taking it further, Woebot might be an effective first step.

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