How do you feel whole

How are you feeling today?

I was on the couch with a virtual therapist. "Woebot" is the name of my Californian plumber with the friendly googly eyes. It is a chatbot developed by Stanford University against depression and anxiety. This text-based dialogue system, behind which there is a large database, was originally developed by the psychologist Alison Darcy for elite students stressed by endurance tests. In the meantime, the university project has developed into a promising start-up company, in which Andrew Ng has also joined as an investor. Ng is a well-known expert who was involved in the development and application of the latest artificial intelligence technologies at Google and its Chinese equivalent, Baidu. Since 2018, »Woebot« has been immediately available day and night for people from more than 120 countries.

You can still download the virtual comforter for free from the app store. And then you can start. No exhausting search for appointments. No overcoming fear of the therapist. I already feel a little superficial and uncomfortable testing the app for readers. On the one hand, because I am not even suffering from depression - at best I tend to have low moods when I have not managed to move my butt into the woods or to exercise for weeks. On the other hand, I don't like communicating my sensitivities to a chatbot, although I am assured that my data - as long as I use the app and not Facebook for my psychochat - will not be passed on to third parties without being asked. But remember: Terms of use can change at any time.

Be that as it may, curiosity wins. "How can I help you?" The teletherapist asks me. In contrast to other psychological apps such as »Remente« for personal development, »Jourvie« for the treatment of eating disorders or »iFightDepression« from the German Depression Aid, which can only be activated by doctors, »Woebot« (»woe« stands for English Kummer) only in English at the moment. First he asks me how interested I am in putting an end to my depressive moods. Unfortunately, I cannot fully read the given answers because I changed the settings on my smartphone. Sighing, I change the font size, which actually makes me a bit in a bad mood and thus possibly a better candidate. I tick "somewhat".

The next question: How interested am I in getting a better night's sleep? "Unfortunately" I usually sleep very well, truthfully I tick "not at all" and hope not to fly out of the program. However, I am very interested in following my moods. So full marks.

In an interview with Business Insider, the psychologist Darcy says that Woebot is no substitute for traditional therapy. After all, he could not make a diagnosis. Aucgh »Woebot« points out in the virtual anamnesis that you can type SOS at any time, whereupon he sends his interlocutor an address list with real, human therapists. However, in a self-experiment it turns out that in an emergency the app only gives out the telephone number of the "National Suicide Prevention Lifeline" - and Germans receive the very poor information to simply dial 112.

But the available therapy places are far from sufficient. According to the World Health Organization, there are 300 million people worldwide who suffer from depression, a widespread disease that is often underestimated. The majority of Germans are also affected in the course of their lives - either directly due to their own illness or indirectly as a relative. The Kummerbot should help those waiting to bridge the gap - or give people with fears a little kick.

I already feel rather annoyed by the initial questions and would prefer a good book about depression if necessary. But that doesn't make me part of the majority. In a study of his own, Darcy either gave depressed students the e-book "Depression and College Students" to read or let them chat with "Woebot" - the latter supposedly felt better afterwards, while hardly any changes were found in the readers.

How interested am I in developing healthy lifestyles? I hesitate and then decide to go for the full boom. And yes, I want to get a little bit of my sown depressive moods under control. Anyone who is never depressed in the uninhibited capitalist machinery of madness must be crazy after all. Now comes something really exciting: procrastination. My husband and I really indulge in some areas of life, you just have to ask our current tax advisor. The third in a year. So I definitely want to defeat them.

Do I want to improve my relationships? Realign my thoughts? It can never hurt, I'll stay an apprentice for a lifetime. Do I want to reduce stress? Establish more "mindfulness"? I think of my family, who always complain that I brutally promise them what I think. All right: "very". My head is smoking. Tiring to think so much about yourself when the sun is laughing outside.

The initial questions are finally over and the cute yellow robot greets me: "Hello human!" He waves at me. Sweet. I want to write "Hello Potato Head" back, but unfortunately my answer is given again. “Woebot” now explains to me how things are going: At the beginning of every conversation, he asks me what I'm up to and how I'm feeling right now. I have to grin because I think of my husband, who also agreed to test the app. "How are you feeling?" Is a classic one of his hate questions.

The virtual suggestion box informs me that it will only sometimes allow me to type my own answers. Most of them are predefined - a clear shortcoming of the app. Often, with the best will in the world, I don't find myself in any of the prepared answers. The Kummerbot doesn't really understand me, just puts together patterns of conversation.

He promises to reveal behavior patterns and cracks some flat jokes that remind me of my father (oh Freud). He would also like to send me push notifications. OK. How should this whole 24/7 head-up thing work any differently?

I'm already totally exhausted from my first rendezvous with »Woebot« when he asks me a few questions that I have to type in answers myself: What exactly should he help me with? I imagine that I really have moderate depression and should open up to a chatbot. Depressing thought. Not my thing.

“What are you doing right now?” “Woebi” asks me next. "I'm writing," I type in a little unimaginatively. "How are you feeling today?" The answers are given again, I tick "okay". Now there's a cute video about the stories we tell ourselves and how they affect how we feel. Language is important, I am learning. What. I should learn to pay attention to my negative thoughts and to change them. It's not always all bad. Fight the emotional noise. Think better, feel better. Sounds great, thumbs up, I'll be there.

My "conversational agent", something like a conversation leader, now warns me that he may not always be right because human emotions are difficult to assess. At least its developers are not prone to overconfidence.

Now my teletherapist asks me how I would describe myself and the world. And urges me to delete the word "always" from my vocabulary in this regard.

It has long been clear to me how the chat is going: »Woebot« uses tools from cognitive behavioral therapy that result in changing one's own way of thinking. My job for today: to pay attention to what words I use.

The chatbot says goodbye. I mischievously type in the most beautiful Shakespeare English "When shall we two meet again?" - but "Woebi" can't handle it, asks me if I need help. Sigh.

I think I'll leave it at that for now, change my font size again and consider slipping in a little aisle to the supermarket. At least I pass a few trees. Looking into the shimmering green leaves I wonder whether my rapidly growing aversion to »Woebot« stems from the fact that I just don't belong to the target group. But I can't imagine that the bot can help people get over depression. At most he could pass a few lonely hours.

On the way, a friend calls me who is struggling with depression and has kindly tested "Woebot" for me. Curiously, I ask her how she is doing with the app.

"You just notice all the time that it's a robot," she says calmly. “There is no exchange, it jumps to certain terms, the same loops always run. You simply cannot bond with machines, ›Woebot‹ is only suitable for initial intervention, but even then I would prefer a good friend who simply listens. "

That evening, with a gin and tonic in one hand, I prematurely delete the app. And my husband As expected, it didn't get beyond the question "How are you feeling?"

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