Should This Exist? Woebot

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We can summon cars at the push of a button, we can video chat with our grandparents, and we are connected to our friends 24/7.  Yet the same devices that enable those miracles have ushered in an epidemic of anxiety and depression, which has hit our kids particularly hard. Studies couldn’t show a clearer connection between technology use and feelings of loneliness and depression. We’re more powerful than ever, and our needs are instantly satisfied, but we are dying inside.

My guest on this episode of Should This Exist? Is Alison Darcy, PhD, clinical therapist and creator of Woebot, a friendly AI-powered chatbot that aims to change this by being there for you 24/7, and delivering Cognitive Behavioral Therapy–or CBT– whenever depression descends and a black cloud of negative thoughts hovers over you. In its first day of operation it treated more people than a therapist could in a year.

For most people in the world, seeing a therapist isn’t practical or affordable, and having one just a tap away in your pocket can change your life. Because Woebot has had millions of chat sessions, it has also generated more data than a therapist will in a lifetime, and its algorithms can optimize its responses better.

But what if Woebot drives us even farther apart? We asked Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist, best-selling author, and host of her own hit podcast. She said:

“AI stands for artificial intelligence, but it also stands for artificial intimacy, the idea that a bot, app or machine will answer you the way you want to be answered, and suspend your awareness that it has actually been programmed.”

Perfectly human-like AI could lead to mass emotional dependency on technology, similar to how movies like Her and Blade Runner 2049 show dependency on virtual girlfriends. And there’s an entire industry growing around providing children with robot friends. 

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Pilvi Takala, a Finnish artist, recently had an exhibition at Kiasma called Second Shift showing her work around emotional labor. Emotional labor is the often unseen and unappreciated work required of employees, group members or family members beyond their manual or mental labor, and the work that needs to be done to care for others. One of her works was Invisible Friend, which came from her experience working as a paid “girlfriend” over the internet. One thing that occurred to me was that women might be liberated from more emotional labor by apps like Woebot.

Watch the video here: Pilvi Takala: Workers Forum.

But in the end, it seems like a bad idea to use technology to solve a problem that technology has itself created. Shouldn’t we put down our phones and join the conversations around us? Shouldn’t people, not AI, bring us back to ourselves? But then again, is this the way out of the sorrows of the world? Join us on Should This Exist? to discuss this issue, and send us your feedback by posting a review! We read each one, and it really matters for the following episodes.

3 thoughts on “Should This Exist? Woebot

  1. It seems like a good idea to me. I remember reading an article years ago about a philosophy professor who was a part-time psychotherapist. He said that his specialty was clear thinking and many psychological problems require just that to clear them up.

    So, a psych-bot could be, in some ways, not much different from an calculator. But it could also offer you more pep talks than any therapist ever could. And a lot of the comforting words we get from the pros are cookie-cutter standardized comments or even just sounds to acknowledge that the person is there and listening to you.

    At the dentist they seem to have been trained to touch my shoulder and say certain things to calm me down and I don’t really mind.

  2. I love the premise of this podcast. Also love that you don’t wrap it up in a neat bow for us – very smart people with deep knowledge trying things – and it gets more interesting below the surface.
    Depression and anxiety are so pernicious that even if the results are palliative, that’s a win, don’t you think?
    One of the themes that comes up again and again today is how much less contact we’re having with other people – touch, like you mentioned above, but also just regular conversation. I run a unique mobility service designed around subscription access (I had a hunch – validated – that a reason Uber has had such underwhelming impact in suburban areas is that ‘pay-per-trip’ is a non-starter as a substitute for owning a car even for people who hate owning a car), and one of the features of how we make it pencil is that customers regularly got the same drivers. They’d have five or eight minute (trip-length) conversations with the same people on a regular basis, whenever they went out. When we talk to them about what they like and don’t like about the service, that comes out again and again as a favorite. Older passengers sometimes go out just to have that interaction. Even younger passengers who spend the trip on their phone tell us that’s one of the real benefits.
    Thanks for putting this together!

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