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TAO Connect adds an AI chatbot to help manage mental health online

Margie Manning



TAO Connect, a St. Petersburg digital health company focused on behavioral therapy, has rolled out the third version of its online platform.

TAO Connect V3 incorporates an artificial intelligence-driven chatbot, dubbed TAO Assistant, that walks users through the process of choosing materials for online therapy.

TAO has than 150 interactive sessions on anxiety, depression, substance abuse, anger and sexual violence, as well as a library of 300 videos. All that material could be overwhelming without some guidance, said Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer.

Sherry Benton, chief science officer and founder, TAO Connect

“The chatbot will walk someone through the whole process,” Benton said. “You log in and the chatbot walks you through screening. It helps to figure out what materials might be best for you. You pick the materials you want to work with and from there they all appear on a dashboard that keeps track of what you’ve done and what you haven’t done yet … It’s a lot more user-friendly and humanized with the chatbot.”

The National Science Foundation awarded TAO a $500,000 grant last year to develop and launch the AI chatbot.

Since then, TAO has used the feedback collected from several hundred thousand users to build a decision tree that determines how the chatbot will respond to questions.

“It’s not a human, which would be ideal, but the chatbot is a little more human-like,” Benton said. “It’s more conversational. It will ask you questions and when you respond it will walk you through the process, where before you were too much just on your own trying to negotiate what’s a really big system.”

The new AI-driven technology comes as demand for TAO’s services are rising because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our video conferencing component went from 80,000 minutes per month to 3 million minutes per month,” Benton said. “One of the things that gets used more than anything is the mindfulness library. We have 18 different kinds of mindfulness exercises and those get used a lot. The other thing is stress, anxiety and depression. Those are the things people use it for a great deal, especially stress and anxiety.”

During the pandemic, the company has been offering a free online help session specific to Covid-19.

Benton launched TAO initially in 2014 to provide services at colleges and universities, where there was a high demand for counseling services. It’s now offered at more than 180 schools in North America, and the renewal rate is 95 percent, she said.

Subsequently health centers and health plans have picked up the service. It’s also offered as part of employee benefits packages.

“We’re part of a large Covid-related project in Canada, to provide services to remote populations. The growth in Canada has been one of the biggest sources of growth,” Benton said.

A free version of TAO’s platform is available to all citizens of Canada, and the complete platform is available to the citizens of Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia.

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