May 13, 2019 | By

AI IRL Podcast Episode 19: Which is a better therapist, an AI app or a human?

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Which is a better therapist, an AI app or a human?

According to two recent studies, an app is just as good, and in some cases better, than a human therapist.

The free app is called Woebot, a friendly AI powered chatbot that delivers cognitive behavioral therapy at scale to make such therapy much more accessible.

In our latest AI:IRL podcast, we spoke with Woebot CEO and Co-Founder Alison Darcy, a clinical research psychologist out of Stanford University about why the app works so well.

Woebot solves the issue of accessibility in three ways.

  1. By being an app, you don’t have to wrestle with the logistics of trying to find a clinician, trying to get on their waitlist, and then having to go to a certain place at a certain time. Because the app is always in your pocket and always available, it lowers the barriers to entry. You can get help the moment you need it.
  2. Unlike a human, Woebot can scale to serve many more people 24/7 for a few pennies worth of additional server space.
  3. It reduces stigma. The app changes the idea that mental health is about being broken and must be treated in a clinical setting. It’s more about understanding that everybody has mental health and everybody must tend to it. Think of it less as therapy and more like the very popular meditation and brain-training apps.

Mental health today is viewed the way exercise was 50 years ago. Exercise was something that might have been prescribed by a doctor because you had some serious health problems.

Now everyone knows they need to exercise and many folks build it into their daily lives.

With Woebot, Darcy sees people able to work out every day to help improve their mental health.

A lot of cognitive therapy is based on repetition. Think of it as weightlifting. Lifting the dumbbell once doesn’t achieve the health goal. Doing multiple repetitions consistently over time brings success. The same is true with Woebot.

The ultimate outcome, long-term mental health, comes from addressing issues at micro-moments. Instead of a huge intervention that take place after a crisis, the AI helps deliver the minimum daily dosage by replicating the best approach a human therapist would use.

It isn’t events themselves that upset us, it’s how we internalize them. This app lets you re-contextualize something in the moment, before you get worked up over it.

For example, if you have a terrible job performance review, your internal monologue might devolve into thinking: everyone hates you, you’ll be fired, your family will starve, etc.

The language people use to describe these feelings can be linked to specific states of mind. The app recognizes the negative distortions that are revealed in the language, and provides immediate relief.

In a randomized controlled trial at Stanford. Darcy tested the app to see if it reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety significantly in just two weeks. The two-week timeframe is important because that’s actually a very fast time to get a response.

Normal talk outcome times are as long as six weeks. Even antidepressants take two to four weeks to work.

When asked about their experience with the app vs. the control group, people preferred the app. They felt it wasn’t an app as much as a friend checking in on them.

In another study, users felt as strong a therapeutic bond with Woebot as they did with their previous human therapist. By some measures, Woebot outperformed a human therapist.

Perhaps it is time for you to give Woebot a try.


This AI discussion with Woebot CEO and Co-Founder, Alison Darcy was taken from our podcast. If you want more AI: In Real Life, check out our podcast on iTunes here.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can use this link here.

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