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Patients are encouraged to talk about their emotional responses to life events, and then stop to identify the psychological traps that cause their stress, anxiety, and depression.
“A good CBT therapist should facilitate someone else’s process, not become a part of it,” says Darcy.
“It’s not an AI that’s going to tell you stuff you don’t know about yourself by detecting some magic you’re not even aware of.” Woebot only knows as much as you reveal to it—and it can only help as much as you decide to help yourself. In 2014, Darpa funded a study of a virtual therapist named Ellie, an embodied avatar developed at the University of California’s Institute for Creative Technologies.
Two groups of 239 participants talked to Ellie: One thought they were talking to a fully automated bot, and the other was told there was a real person behind the machine.
X2AI describes its bots as therapeutic assistants, meaning they offer help and support rather than treatment.
For the most part, these bots are in a supportive role—more tool than therapy. It’s billed as a treatment in its own right, an accessible option for those who have no sort of care for their struggles with mental health.
“It’s almost borderline illegal to say this in my profession, but there’s a lot of noise in human relationships,” says Alison Darcy, one of the psychologists behind Woebot, and the company’s CEO. That’s what stigma really is.” There’s nothing like venting to an anonymous algorithm to lift that fear of judgement.
Of course, promising medical results from a chatbot introduces new legal and ethical issues.
In reality, all participants were randomly assigned a fully or semi-automated virtual human—but the participants who thought they were talking to a robot were way more likely to open up and reveal their deepest and darkest secrets.
Removing even the Ellie was a research project, not a commercially available product, but it did provide some of the strongest proof that computers can actually make great therapists.
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