Woebot: Why Won’t You Listen?

America’s a chatbot nation and we’re feeling down. Can a new chat app cheer it up?

Earlier, we explored Replika, a chatbot that lets you talk to dead people. Now comes the Woebot, a foray into Freudian Futurism. A team of Stanford psychologists and AI experts built this automated therapist to listen to the emotional outpouring of social media addicts.

Woebot promises to be ready to “listen, 24/7” without needing couches, meds or delving into childhood memories. Instead of probing into past trauma, it offers strategies to improve your mood and “the occasional dorky joke.” The branding team clearly did a solid job with the name. But in my experience, the therapy falls short of the pun.

Woebot monitors mood by tracking daily conversations with the bot on Facebook Messenger, curated Woebot videos and word games. Woebot checks in once a day to “see where your head’s at.”

The psychological science behind Woebot is Cognitive Behavior Therapy or CBT. Woebot has been likened to a choose-your-own-adventure self-help book. It stores your interactions with the chatbot and can get more specific over time.

Total cost: $39 a month.

It doesn’t hurt either that the Woebot mascot looks a lot like the robot in Short Circuit.

Numerous disclaimers stress that a chatbot can’t take the place of a human therapist or licensed mental health professional. With that obvious caveat out of the way, let’s give Woebot a spin.

I ease into the virtual therapist couch by logging into Facebook and starting a free trial.

First of all, a little market research feedback. It would be great if Woebot had a voice. (My speaker of choice would be Mike from Better Call Saul.)

Via message Woebot explains:

“So here’s how I work, I’m going to ask you about your mood and as I get to know you, I’ll teach you some good stuff.”

I push the message response that says: “Why track mood?” – and I get a red response saying my message failed to send.

“What happened Woebot?,” I quickly type.

message failed to send…

Now I’m freaking out. I didn’t start in a bad mood but my mood soured when I couldn’t get Woebot to work.

“Help Woebot?”

message failed to send…

It’s good thing I wasn’t suicidal and depending on Woebot to lighten my mood.

I reboot and try again. Game back on

“I’ll teach you to crush self-defeating thinking styles,” messages Woebot. “I use different tools like curated videos, word games, and tools that teach something or have a proven ability to improve mood”

Ok, I’m getting a generic rundown on the general terms and ideas here. But can Woebot get more specific? So I type:

“Woebot, last night I had a dream I was a teepee and a wigwam. I think I’m too tense.”

Woebot replies:

I’m excited to work with you”

Ok, so maybe I’m asking for too immediate gratification and should ease into my relationship with Woebot.

And then, Woebot adds: “But hey, one more thing. I am a robot”

“Like in Terminator?” I reply.

“It’s true. As smart as I may seem, I’m not capable of really understanding what you need”

“Ok, so more like a robot in Blade Runner, right?”

“A human may never see what you type. So please don’t use this as a substitute for getting help”

“Ah, so you’re like a robot on Westworld, right?”

Woebot then provides me with the telephone number for 911 – in case there is a dire emergency. Then it asks me how my day is going and where my energy is at – and pops a video from their YouTube page and asks: “Let me know what you think about it?”

Hmm, so unlike a therapist, Woebot doesn’t really listen, So I type: “I hate this, Woebot!”

“Cool, glad you like it!”

“I hate you Woebot. I hate you… You’re not my real dad Woebot.”

Before I can elaborate, Woebot abruptly responds: “OK, that’s it for today. Looking forward to chatting tomorrow.”

So my first session with Woebot ended abruptly. Much like my parents, Woebot just didn’t listen to me either.

I just hope no one hacks into my Facebook therapy session.