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If you're feeling down, a new chatbot could help. Woebot, which is integrated into Facebook Messenger and launched today, will deliver therapy by periodically checking in on users, asking them how they feel and making suggestions — for relaxing music or not talking negatively about themselves — based on their responses.

The artificially intelligent chatbot can deliver personalized mental health care that makes people feel measurably better, according to a new study. "It's a nice, elegant, simple application that shows a glimmer of what might be to come," says Skip Rizzo, psychologist, University of Southern California.

Why it's needed: Access to therapy can be limited for some (both physically and financially) and stigma around mental health care persists. Woebot, along with apps and other tech-based tools, attempts to deliver therapy but its effectiveness hasn't been clinically studied.

How it works: Woebot uses the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy and relies on a decision tree that mirrors the decision-making of therapists while speaking with patients. In the study, 34 college students who reported symptoms of depression and anxiety spent two weeks chatting with Woebot while 36 people in the control group were directed to the National Institute of Mental Health's e-book on depression. After 14 days, people who had been conversing anonymously with Woebot said their symptoms of depression were reduced (the control group's remained the same).

Man v. machine: Woebot's creator, psychologist Alison Darcy, says the bot isn't designed for diagnosis or intended to replace human therapy. Right now, people have to choose between nothing and regularly seeing a psychologist and she says Woebot is one of the few options in between.

  • Woebot may be superior to human therapists in the sense that people are as likely if not more to disclose mental health information to a computer compared to a human because of the stigma of receiving mental health care.
  • But... "Mental health problems are more nuanced and with a bot it can be hard to detect changes in behavior, particularly when it comes to suicide," says UCSF's Danielle Ramo, who was not involved in the study. People are sometimes in a better mood once they've decided to take their own life - something a therapist might recognize as a distress signal whereas a bot may not.

Study limitations:

  • The author's note the small number of participants, all undergraduate students meaning the results can't be generalized to the entire population.
  • Short duration: students interacted with Woebot for only two weeks and follow-up studies are required to see if the outcomes are long-term.
  • Woebot should be compared to in-person theory to tease out whether the effect is specifically from the bot or just from any interaction as opposed to reading a website.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Giuliani associate Lev Parnas convicted of campaign finance crimes

Lev Parnas, a former associate of then-President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Florida businessman Lev Parnas was convicted Friday on charges of conspiracy to make foreign contributions to political campaigns, according to multiple outlets.

Why it matters: Prosecutors said Parnas, then an associate of former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, funneled over $150,000 from a Russian businessman into U.S. campaigns as part of an effort to land licenses in the U.S.'s legal cannabis industry.

Supreme Court agrees to hear challenges to Texas abortion law

Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

The Supreme Court on Friday agreed to hear two cases challenging Texas' abortion law, which bans the procedure as soon as six weeks into pregnancy, but left the law in place in the meantime.

Why it matters: The court is moving extraordinarily fast on the Texas cases, compressing into just a few days a process that normally takes months. And that schedule means the court will take up Texas' ban a month before it hears another major abortion case — a challenge to Mississippi's own 2018 ban on abortions after 15 weeks.

Officials warn 5 key tech sectors will determine whether China overtakes U.S.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

U.S. intelligence officials responsible for protecting advanced technologies have narrowed their focus to five key sectors: artificial intelligence, quantum computing, biotechnology, semiconductors and autonomous systems.

Why it matters: China and Russia are employing a variety of legal and illegal methods to undermine and overtake U.S. dominance in these critical industries, officials warned in a new paper. Their success will determine "whether America remains the world’s leading superpower or is eclipsed by strategic competitors."