Illustration by TIME; reference image courtesy of Alison Darcy

Ask Alison Darcy to describe how to design an AI companion to help people feel happier, and she’ll tell you the first ingredient is Spock, the logic-driven Star Trek character who struggles with human emotions. Toss in some Kermit the Frog, who’s insightful and never lectures, and then add her late friend Eric Bayer, who had immense compassion—and a hypnotizing way of drawing people in until they revealed truths they hadn’t even realized they were hiding.

All those traits fuse together to create Woebot: a kind, often humorous chatbot that uses AI to function like an automated therapist. “It’s an emotional assistant that’s there for you in tricky moments and always has your best interest at heart,” says Darcy, a clinical research psychologist. Importantly, she says, the chatbot has “a fun dynamic, as much as a therapeutic one.”

Darcy, who spent a couple years working as a software developer in the late ’90s before going to grad school for psychology, is passionate about making mental-health care available to everyone. She launched Woebot Health in 2017 with a team of psychologists and AI experts at Stanford, where she’s an adjunct professor; a spokesperson notes that it’s now been used by around 1.5 million people. The company has raised $123.5 million via multiple funding rounds, allowing its app to be available for free to individual smartphone users, though that model could change in the future. Woebot also partners with health care organizations and businesses to help provide its services to more people.

The app “enables us to reach people when they’re on a wait list,” Darcy says over Zoom from her home in Dublin. (Darcy, 45, is Irish, but Woebot is headquartered in San Francisco.) “We can unlock some of these really potent tools from the exclusive domain of the clinic, and put them into people’s hands in a preventative way, before things have gotten really bad.” In addition to helping bridge the gap at a time when many can’t find or afford care, Woebot also can serve as a refresher for those who have already had treatment, Darcy says. Some clinicians recommend it as a way for their clients to do out-of-session homework.

Research suggests Woebot can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety in two weeks. Its approach is based on cognitive behavioral therapy, a common type of psychotherapy proven to help change unhelpful ways of thinking and patterns of behavior. Tell the bot you’re feeling tired, and it will lead you through a series of questions that might eventually reveal you can’t sleep at night because you’re overthinking. “You can actually retrain yourself to not associate worry with bedtime,” it noted during a recent conversation, before dispensing tips like scheduling “worry time” well in advance of your bedtime. It has more encouraging words, and strategies, that can help people gain clarity, understand their emotions, and change their thought patterns.

“I get excited when I think about wide-scale adoption,” Darcy says. She smiles as she recalls an email from an 89-year-old man who said the robot suggested he write a narrative to help process some of his thoughts. He was stunned at how helpful the exercise proved. “[Users] all say, ‘I don’t think this was meant for me, but it’s been the most helpful thing,’” Darcy says. “It’s mental health for the modern age.”

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