Artificial Empathy: How Bots Are Leading the Way in Behavioural Health

It’s one of the most divisive developments in modern technology. Artificial intelligence, to some, is an ever-growing threat to our jobs and general wellbeing, a view buoyed by decades of science fiction literature forecasting impending doom. To others, AI is revolutionising present day industry, helping us to travel, shop and be more productive. But what about using artificial intelligence to improve our behavioural health?

Technology and mental health

Historically speaking, technology does not have a favourable record when it comes to mental health. This is particularly prevalent in young people: for example, The Children’s Commissioner’s 2018 report, Life in Likes, revealed that 11-year-olds could spend up to 18 hours per day on social media and were becoming almost addicted to “likes”. Similarly, smartphone use is becoming increasingly correlative with shorter attention spans, poor quality sleep and depression.

One smartphone app is looking to change these patterns. Step forward, Wysa, the artificially intelligent chatbot that aims to change our negative thoughts by simply providing a person to talk to. Developed by a team of “scientists, change-makers, technologists, writers, artists and dreamers”, Wysa provides an instant messenger service which allows users to share their thoughts and feelings anonymously. Using pre-programmed cognitive behavioural therapy techniques, the bot listens to emotions communicated by its users, responding with words of encouragement and suggestions on how to make changes. It’s currently free to use (though access to a Wysa coach, i.e. a human being, costs £21.99 per month) and is backed by a Scientific Advisory Board of computer scientists, neuroscientists and psychiatrists.

How does Wysa work?

Wysa’s developers were inspired by their elderly relatives, who lived far away and could not always have the emotional support they needed. By engaging with technology, they hoped it would provide care and encouragement at times when humans could not.

The app starts by introducing itself and asking you for a name, which does not have to be your own. It then proceeds to ask you a series of questions about your feelings, for example how often you have felt nervous or low in the last few weeks. This is interspersed with thoughtful graphics and encouraging phrases. It also invites you to explore its “toolkit” with tools to combat various personal issues, such as low self-confidence. Users can then partake in activities such as deep breathing and progress their way through the toolkit to unlock new features.

These are just some of the heartening elements of the app – it can also trigger push notifications to check in on users daily, as well as reminding them of things that have made them happy. There is no obligation to carry on talking to the bot; likewise there is no limit to conversation time – the app even tells a knock-knock joke to assure you it is “always there”.

Can Wysa replace traditional CBT?

The app does not claim to be a substitute for traditional human contact; it is even programmed to detect when a user might be having suicidal feelings and will always advise that he/she seek professional help in this instance. In trials, users at the University of Oxford said the app should not be used in place of professional help, but did comment on its remarkably human features, notably its offers to let users “play a game” if they did not feel like talking at the present time.

What is reassuring about Wysa is that it has been developed by experts in the field of cognitive behavioural therapy. All responses in the app have been pre-approved by these experts, and all conversations are completely anonymous, allowing users to express themselves at times when they may otherwise feel judged.

While the app may not be a replacement for genuine human interaction, its considerations for human contact are commendable. Notably, the aforementioned recommendations for professional help, and also its paid “Coach” option, where users can speak to a human via the app, demonstrate awareness of its limitations. However, in a society in which mental health patients may have to wait up to two years for help, it’s refreshing to have a companion right in the palm of your hand. Tracking our behavioural patterns, and more importantly, changing them, apps such as Wysa provide that essential mix of clinical analysis and genuine empathy – proof enough that at least some modern technology can be a force for good.

Learn more about CBT Clinics’ digital healthcare options>

wysa app
Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
14th October 2018

Project Details

Client: CBT Clinics

Skills: Blogging

Date: 18th February 2018

Project Info

This article was written as part of a pitch to CBT Clinics, a provider of corporate healthcare based in York.