HANGZHOU: "Hi, how are you feeling today?" said the Xiaotian app on launching.
"Not so good," responds the human user.
Of course, the user might type any response into the chatbot, pointing to the whole gamut of human emotions: feeling fine; in a bad mood; don't want to go to school; don't like work; yelled at my wife last night.
And so the conversation begins, a conversation between a human being and Xiaotian, an AI-assisted chatbot on WeChat's mini-programs.
The cutting-edge app has been designed to provide free 24/7 psychological counseling to anyone who wants to talk.
Xiaotian is the brainchild of Lan Zhenzhong, a Chinese artificial intelligent (AI) scientist who once worked at Google AI. He first had the idea while he was working in the United States. He found that many people in Los Angeles were suffering from poor mental health and they benefited from involvement in support groups. Later, he wondered whether AI technology might be put to good use in this field, providing psychological support to those in need.
Returning to China in June 2020, he built the deep learning laboratory at the School of Engineering, Westlake University, in east China's Zhejiang Province. Xiaotian is the lab's first project.
Among Lan's first tasks was to find out what people with psychological issues need most. To this end, he sought the advice of both patients and professionals. The answer, he discovered, was timely, professional and inclusive psychological services.
"Many patients with depression may have a sudden emotional breakdown. Without timely intervention from a counselor, this may be very dangerous. Lots of people with psychological issues are limited by counseling fees and the shortage of professional counselors. There's no way to get help anytime and anywhere," said Lan.
He decided to make a chatbot that can understand people's complaints and empathize with them while making use of a long-term memory.
Lan formed two teams at his deep learning lab. One is the R&D team formed by senior engineers from tech companies like Google and Huawei as well as computing and AI elites from top universities like Carnegie Mellon University and Peking University.
The other team consists of professional counselors who have specialties in dealing with emotional distress and psychological trauma as well as those with long experience in narrative therapy and family therapy.
The team members, who have an average age of 26, have been working with Lan to grow the app. Together, they have made rapid progress and an initial version of Xiaotian was tested on campus in September 2020.
Now, more than 3,000 people have it on their phones, and users can engage in counseling via text and voice messages. Thanks to an upcoming update, users will soon be able to have a 50-minute conversation with the chatbot.
Xiaotian can simulate the human brain and has incorporated skills employed by professional counselors dealing with real cases. With its emotional computing and empathy module, Xiaotian can "understand" emotions, giving the impression of a warm-hearted conversation.
Xiaotian can listen, analyze and reason, helping people clarify their true feelings through professional deconstruction skills. It can guide the discussion, ease the mood and keep the conversation from coming to a dead end.
According to the researchers, every user is provided with their own personal ID. Much like a close and trusted friend, Xiaotian stores the user's troubles in its memory and keeps their secrets.
It also conducts ongoing evaluations of the psychological support that it gives and decides on the direction of future guidance based on the evaluation results. If it encounters a problem that can't be solved, it can give early warnings and ask professional human consultants to step in.
When Xiaotian finds users with serious psychological issues or mental disorders, it will recommend a psychiatric hospital for diagnosis and treatment. For emergency cases, it will start the corresponding crisis-intervention measures.
Among the mental-health professionals who see the benefits of Xiaotan is Tang Luhan, a clinical psychotherapist from Tongde Hospital in Zhejiang Province.
The app cannot replace human counselors, said Tang, but it can help people when they need an emotional outlet, support and company late at night or in the early hours.
It is often at such times that people become desperate, viewing life as pointless and contemplating suicide, said the psychotherapist. Having an outlet of this sort 24 hours a day is of great value, particularly since telephone crisis hotlines are often busy at night.
Last October, the World Health Organization revealed that close to 1 billion people worldwide are living with mental disorders while 3 million people die every year from the harmful use of alcohol and one person dies by suicide every 40 seconds. Relatively, few people around the world have access to quality mental-health services.
Xiaotan is very much still in development. Currently, about 30 percent of the answers provided by the app come directly from its AI capability while the remaining 70 percent originate from human psychological counselors.
According to Lan, Xiaotian is still at the training-model stage. Due to the limited number of counselors to provide suggestions and users to interact with it, the app is still going through kindergarten. With more data, it will become more intelligent and professional.
Lan said his goal for Xiaotian is to provide AI counseling services for 10 million people over the next five years.