Sam sends a message to his friend every morning asking how she feels that day, followed by a smiley emoji. He reminds her to take good care of herself and encourages her to be positive. 

Sam is not real. He’s a bot that users can create on Replika, one of a handful of new apps that offer robot confidants and therapists powered by artificial intelligence.

With mental health disorders rampant in the U.S. and the Western world, it’s no wonder these AI robots have become a popular option to relieve stress, find connections and talk through challenging life problems. While specific data on how often these bots are used is difficult to find, CBS News reported several weeks ago that Replika has signed up seven million users since beginning in spring, 2017.

“Artificial companions, which may take the form of a social robot, digital human or chatbot, may reduce loneliness directly as a result of interacting with the technology, and may be helpful when human support is not available,” Kate Loveys, a doctoral candidate in the department of psychological medicine at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, told Karma. 

Investors like what they are seeing, and are boosting bets on the technology. In last year’s second quarter they put $321 million into 26 mental health and wellness companies, a 41% increase, CB Insights says.

Replika, which says it offers “the AI companion who cares,” has raised a total $11 million from Khosla Ventures and Sherpa Capital. In 2018, Woebot, which focuses on improving the mood of its users, raised $8 million in a Series A round from New Enterprise Associates. Youper, which created an AI emotional health assistant that helps people monitor and improve their mental health, has raised $3.5 million. 

These AI bots are available 24/7 to chat, often using cognitive-behavioral therapy, which aims to help people analyze how they typically react to challenging situations. The more frequently a user chats with his or her robot, the better the bot knows the user and is capable of providing meaningful support. The service is easily accessible and remains private and anonymous at a lesser cost than therapy sessions that can cost about $300 an hour. 

Anxiety is the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults, or 18% of the population every year, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

But anxiety is just one aspect of the mental health crisis hitting the U.S. and other industrialized countries.

Depression has become increasingly common, especially among U.S. teens. In 2017, 13%, or 3.2 million of 12-to-17 year old Americans, said they had experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 8% a decade earlier, a Pew Research Center analysis of data recently found. Loneliness is also rampant, with more than 9 million people in the U.K. across all adult ages — more than the population of London — feeling either always or often lonely, according to a study conducted by the British Red Cross. The U.K. has even appointed a minister for loneliness two years ago.

Technology Impact

Technology, which has made our lives much easier in many ways, has contributed to depression and other mental health disorders, according to a study from Leeds University conducted in 2010. Some people feel addicted to the Internet and to their phone and have a feeling of emptiness when they are not provided with new online experiences or are comparing themselves to others on social media.

“Artificial companions . . . may reduce loneliness directly as a result of interacting with the technology, and may be helpful when human support is not available.”

“If people are mindlessly scrolling through their social media feed or using technology in a not very social way, you could see how there may be negative impacts on the health,” Linda Kaye, a senior lecturer in psychology at Edge Hill University near Liverpool, told Karma.

Specializing in cyberpsychology, she looks at how online settings can promote social inclusion and well-being and acknowledges the fact that technology is also helping address some mental health problems. Cyberpsychology, which focuses on the psychological phenomena that emerge as a result of human interaction with digital technology, is a new field rising in popularity. In addition to issues such as anxiety, depression and loneliness, the field examines problems including addictions to computers, smart phones and video games.

“Some of the technology might be very helpful,” she said, adding that communication tools such as WhatsApp can, for example, help people connect more easily with real-life friends and that meditation apps have been proven beneficial as well.

AI and natural language processing are also on the forefront of technological advancement when it comes to therapy.

“AI can improve the quality of interactions that people may have with a technology-based companion or therapist,” Loveys said. “AI can enable a technology to detect and respond to a user’s emotional state, or evaluate if a therapeutic action it took created a change in the user’s mental state. This can help technology to be more effective at providing companionship or delivering a mental health intervention.”

The AI-powered mental health bot sector is starting to be crowded, according to Maxx Wolff, a managing member at Multivariate, who works with private tech companies, but added that the opportunity for growth still exists.

“The skillset is not unique and the VC world always tends to over-fund,” he said. “A lot of them will get acquired and a lot of them will die but for now the demand is huge and the space is still in its infancy. You’ll get more specialization.”

Although Wolff considers these AI robot therapists a good idea from a business standpoint — considering the demand amid the mental health crisis — he thinks they may not be as helpful to users as they seem in the long run.

“People are isolated and don’t have enough intimate relationships in their lives,” Wolff said. “While I think there’s a lot that mental health apps can do, I don’t think they will be helping. Like Facebook, they might make people even more isolated.”

It’s unlikely AI robots will come to replace in-person therapy sessions, but for now, along with other tools like meditation apps or even social media sites and virtual reality, they seem to be helping  some users cope with their issues.