al ISon daRcy, a clInIcal PSycholoGISt, set out to slay psychiatry’s
sacred cow: that two people in a room talking to each other is the
only way to get someone help. Few have the money or desire to do
full-on therapy. Most don’t need it. What they need is in-the-moment
guidance when they’re stressed or depressed. Not a couch. A coach.
Enter Darcy’s Woebot, an A.I.-driven chatbot that delivers cognitive
behavioral therapy over mobile devices. CBT focuses on thoughts,
teaching people to examine and reframe theirs. Her company launched
in 2017, the year the World Health Organization said the world’s leading
cause of disability is depression. “There never have been enough clini-
cians,” she says, adding, “About 38 percent of people with a diagnosis of
depression will achieve sustained recovery from a lighter touch with CBT.”
Prior to starting the company, while working with people with eating
disorders, Darcy realized that “removal of the body”—through digital
interaction—can be “a huge advan-
tage.” Men seem more willing to
open up without another human
present: Roughly half of Woebot’s
users are male, to Darcy’s surprise.
Woebot, which is free, has
raised $8.1 million; eventually,
users will pay for some services.
Darcy won’t reveal user numbers,
but says Woebot receives between
one million and two million mes-
sages a week. (Each session comprises multiple messages.)
“In an ideal world, you exercise every day,” says Darcy. “Mental health
is the new exercise. I would love to see Woebot be the thing that popu-
larizes that.” —LEIGH BUCHANAN
90 ● INC. ● NOVEMBER 2018 ● ● ● ILLUSTRATION BY GRAHAM ROUMIEU
ELECTRIFY YOUR BRAIN
Coffee breaks have a robust basis in neuroscience: Human brains can’t maintain focus on a boring task too long,
says researcher Andy McKinley. “Usually, after 20 minutes or so, performance has gone down quite a bit,” he says.
Caffeine extends that window, but nowhere near as much as zapping the brain with electrical currents, as McKinley
knows. He focuses on transcranial direct-current stimulation—tDCS—at the U.S. Air Force’s applied neuroscience
branch’s cognitive performance optimization section. In trials involving repetitive work, electrically stimulating the
left frontal cortex let subjects maintain concentration for up to six hours—without a performance drop. In other
tests, tDCS accelerated the rate of learning by 25 percent. Maybe brain-zapping headsets—already a thing with
Silicon Valley biohackers—will one day be as common as espresso machines. —J.B.