Instead, she says, the bot delivers “digital therapeutics.” And Woebot’s terms of service call it a “pure self-help” program that is not meant for emergencies. In fact, in the event of a severe crisis, Woebot says that it is programmed to recognize suicidal language and urge users to seek out a human alternative.
In that way, Woebot does not approach true therapy — like many mental health apps, the current, free version of Woebot is not subject to strict oversight from the Food and Drug Administration because it falls under the category of “general wellness” product, which receives only F.D.A. guidance.
But Woebot is striving for something more. With $22 million of venture capital in hand, Woebot is seeking clearance from the F.D.A. to develop its algorithm to help treat two psychiatric diagnoses, postpartum depression and adolescent depression, and then sell the program to health systems.
And it is here that Woebot hopes to make money, using its practical advantage over any human therapist: scale.
While other virtual therapy companies, like BetterHelp or Talkspace, must keep recruiting therapists to join their platforms, A.I. apps can take on new users without paying for extra labor. And while therapists can vary in skills and approach, a bot is consistent and doesn’t get stressed out by back-to-back sessions.
“The assumption is always that, because it’s digital, it’ll always be limited,” Dr. Darcy of Woebot said. “There’s actually some opportunities that are created by the technology itself that are really challenging for us to do in traditional treatment.”
One advantage of an artificial therapist — or, as Dr. Darcy calls it, a “relational agent” — is 24-hour-a-day access. Very few human therapists answer their phone during a 2 a.m. panic attack, as Dr. Darcy pointed out. “I think people have probably underestimated the power of being able to engage in a therapeutic technique in the moment that you need to,” she said.