‘I can cry without feeling stigma’: meet the people turning to AI chatbots for therapy

  • March 2, 2024
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It’s cheap, quick and available 24/7, but is a chatbot therapist really the right tool to tackle complex emotional needs?

Last autumn, Christa, a 32-year-old from Florida with a warm voice and a slight southern twang, was floundering. She had lost her job at a furniture company and moved back home with her mother. Her nine-year relationship had always been turbulent; lately, the fights had been escalating and she was thinking of leaving. She didn’t feel she could be fully honest with the therapist she saw once a week, but she didn’t like lying, either. Nor did she want to burden her friends: she struggles with social anxiety and is cautious about oversharing.

So one night in October she logged on to character.ai – a neural language model that can impersonate anyone from Socrates to Beyoncé to Harry Potter – and, with a few clicks, built herself a personal “psychologist” character. From a list of possible attributes, she made her bot “caring”, “supportive” and “intelligent”. “Just what you would want the ideal person to be,” Christa tells me. She named her Christa 2077: she imagined it as a future, happier version of herself.

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