Drugs are ravaging America. Overdoses lead to more deaths than car crashes or guns for people under the age of 50, and are killing people at a faster clip than the H.I.V. crisis did at its peak.
Late last year, Stndby, an artificial intelligence messaging platform, launched a custom chatbot that helps those affected by addiction. This version of the system offers encouragement, motivation, and teachings, giving users ways to practice healthier behaviors and develop deeper awareness and coping skills. It can connect people to resources such as nearby rehabilitation centers, Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and live human support. As well, the chatbot reminds users to explore additional content that was developed as part of Viacom’s Listen campaign to reduce the stigma around addiction.
Stndby’s founder and CEO Sashka Rothchild describes it as a digital tool that offers safe, anonymous, personalized support for those struggling with addiction personally or supporting someone who is, as well as a “way to better see themselves in the world and build a stronger inner tool kit.” While the chatbot’s features are still in the process of being developed, it’s part of the growing trend of using new technology to address health care concerns. “If we can empower the caregiver and the supporter, this is a very powerful weapon against this epidemic,” says Kodi Foster, Viacom’s SVP of data strategy.
We invited Rothchild and Foster to discuss the healing potential of A.I. and new technology.
On pushing the limits of conversational tech
Kodi Foster: So many of our fans fall into the demographic that’s most adversely affected by the opioid crisis. Viacom’s corporate responsibility group felt it’s our moral responsibility and obligation to get involved. The question was, ‘how can we move this beyond a public service announcement, so that we’re not just talking about it, but doing something that’s actually supportive of the rehab process?’
Sashka Rothchild: Viacom became involved with Stndby after you found out about what we were doing with conversational interfaces, and came to me about customizing Stndby to support people dealing with addiction … It’s a very difficult but prime example of what we should be pushing technology to handle.
There’s something about a having a nonhuman at the other end of the line that can feel incredibly safe and judgment-free for someone who’s in the middle of a crisis. The bot has the ability to help people enter into difficult conversations. And that’s where we realized we could potentially make some really big strides in changing the way people think and talk about getting access to support.
KF: We identified a very specific need: Making technology the bridge for someone who may feel an acute sense of shame or like they can’t go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting or a rehab facility and talk to a person face-to-face and say, ‘Hey, I have an addiction problem.’
On disruption with a purpose
SR: We can grind and hustle and try to get to the point where a bot is doing the back and forth and pretending to be a therapist, but that’s a different goal. What Stndby can do really, really well is understand a deep psychometric profile, patterns, sentiment, and belief systems around what someone might be talking about and therefore identify incredibly insightful, appropriate, nuanced resources to help someone.
KF: This thing is giving customized support based on some of the most advanced machine learning and psychometric analyses. It’s Myers-Briggs on steroids. It was co-developed into the platform by Galen Buckwalter, the research psychologist who invented the assessment and matching system when he was the chief science researcher for eHarmony.
SR: We’re just trying to flex the muscles of all things A.I. to serve our users. And that allows us to make things that are potentially really interesting and user-friendly and that don’t feel laborious, difficult, or uncomfortable.
KF: If we can get people talking to the point where their comfort level increases, maybe they’ll be more open to clicking on that link that’s going to tell them where they can find a rehab facility. Or maybe just because they talked to Stndby for a couple of days, weeks, or hours, maybe they’re willing to talk to their friend. That, for us, is the win….If it can act as a bridge to recovery, then this is what A.I. is meant for.
Stndby is an example of looking to solve the right problem. In many instances, A.I. is being used to solve problems that you probably don’t really need it to solve.
“In many instances, A.I. is being used to solve problems that you probably don’t really need it to solve.”
SB: Right. There are many companies that are leveraging bots and A.I. in a way that’s mostly transaction-based and in service of the convenience economy. Where’s my Uber? How do I book a hotel room faster? How do I get Patron to my hotel room within 30 minutes? Fine, that’s great. But there’s a hierarchy of problem-solving and we should be reassessing where and what we’re building.
We should be building solutions for needs that are important, that prop up our daily lives, and that can really take advantage of technology’s ability to deliver value and utility at scale.
KF: Ultimately, that’s what tech for good means to me; it’s not disruption for the sake of disruption, and it’s most certainly not disruption for the sake of profitability. It’s disruption with a purpose. And if you can find a purpose or a lighthouse that you think matters, that’s where technology becomes part of the greater good. Not something that feeds off of us, but something that feeds us.