In recent years, Alexa Jett has taken a few heavy blows.

Later, in 2016, she was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid although she was given the all-clear, when her best friend and former partner died of cancer at the age of 33, another crisis hit in August 2019.

“I shut down completely. I started to wonder if I was next,” says Ms. Jett.

She couldn’t get out of bed and piled up household chores leaving the house in a mess.

She was also looking for help online and from a chatbot called Vivibot for mental health.

“Hey, why aren’t we making a goal?” she was told on September 10 by the chatbot.

She only had to paint her toenails for a start, but in combination with the “funny and friendly personality” of the chatbot and the 24/7 presence, this simple task slowly inspired Ms. Jett to accomplish more tasks.

“She took me out of the dark place, and I started working again,” Jett says.

Vivibot is offered to people affected by cancer through GRYT, an app-based virtual network.

There are dozens of similar services available that talk about mental health issues with their customers. We have mood updates and tips on how to improve their state of mind and emotion.

“These chatbots are a great first step for people who may experience sad or depressed mood or anxiety to regain their mental health,” says Hopelab’s research director Danielle Ramo, who designed Vivibot.

She is quick to add that chatbots are unable to treat clinical depression or clinical anxiety and are not intended to replace any human interaction.

Clinical psychologist Noel Hunter, however, says that this way, some chatbots are not being marketed and instead present themselves as a solution to mental health problems.

“They’re conscientious not to say it directly because they’re sued afterward, so people get that message,” Dr. Hunter says.

To Dr. Hunter, chatbots reinforce the idea of our pain being at fault.

“We make you believe that if you just look at your phone and do a few things like self-help, it will take the place of a stable relationship’s soothing essence,” she says.

Bots can’t pick up on non-verbal communication, of course, which can mean a lot about how we feel.

“In non-human-to-human environments, a large part of this non-verbal communication, which is crucial for our overall well-being and fulfillment, is skipped,” says Dr. Hunter.

 

There is, however, growing interest in using software to enhance the planet’s mental health. The World Health Organization claims one in four of us is suffering from some mental health problem, and other data suggests that people are more frank with robots than fellow human beings.

Social media giants like Twitter join the digital mental health arena.

In October 2019, the Let’s Talk Stories filter and a series of Let’s Talk Messenger stickers were released by Facebook and Messenger, which inspired people to start conversations that led to support.

Looking ahead, a time may come when artificial intelligence (AI) may be sufficiently advanced to have a deep understanding of human mental health.

“In 2029, we could have human-level AI,” says Peter Diamandis, the XPRIZE Foundation’s doctor, engineer, and founder and chairman.

We are primarily in the medical arena in the nascent days of AI, he says.

“The amount of data that medical examinations now gather, whether it looks at a brain MRI or your genome, and the outcomes of various tests, all these items are far beyond a single human’s capacity,” says Mr. Diamandis.

“In the next 20 years, possibly ten years, it will be wrong not to use AI in diagnosis,” he continues.

Not everyone agrees that AI is going to move forward so fast. And the question remains, are people going to relate to AI in the same way they do to a therapist?

Ms. Jett thinks so. She points out that her generation grew up with a digital technology-an extension of her life to her.

Yet Dr. Hunter sees only a techno-bubble that, once it explodes, would lead people either in the form of human-to-human therapy or spirituality to shift to more traditional ways of healing.

“Something concerning partnerships belonging to certain types of peer groups,” she says.

Mr. Diamandis sees a balance in our lives, skewed towards a substantial involvement of AI.

“I would think that a human therapist using AI will be much more effective on his own than a human therapist,” he says, adding that success rates are higher in almost every situation where an AI and a human coexist to assess and treat patients.

Mr. Diamandis encourages us to think of the Iron Man movie to understand how AI is going to change our mental health.

Superhero genius Tony Stark (Iron Man) has a digital helper Jarvis in the movie, who arranges his meetings, answers the door, and even organizes his playlists.

“In the next decade, I hope we’ll all have a version of Jarvis,” says Mr. Diamandis.

“A Jarvis who will conduct our administrative tasks, such as reading our emails or listening to our phone calls; a Jarvis who will feel a depressed mood in our house and reverse it by playing our favorite movie, or a song he knows uplifts our minds; a Jarvis who will research us 24/7 and understand us in many ways that we don’t even know ourselves.”