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TAO Connect taps artificial intelligence to personalize therapy

Margie Manning

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Photo by Hitesh Choudhary on Unsplash

TAO Connect, a St. Petersburg digital health company, has received a half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to develop and launch a chatbot.

The chatbot is an artificial intelligence-based system that will draw on the data TAO Connect has collected from its users to recommend treatments that lead to the best outcomes, said Sherry Benton, founder and chief science officer.

Sherry Benton, chief science officer and founder, TAO Connect

TAO stands for Therapy Assistance Online. The company has a digital platform aimed at making behavioral health therapy more accessible, efficient and effective.

Artificial intelligence is transforming a wide swath of industries, and TAO is the most recent to tap the technology  — the same as that used by Netflix to recommend movies, or by Audible to recommend books.

“It learns what you like and puts that in the context of hundreds of thousands of users,” Benton said.

It also fits with TAO’s mission to make effective behavioral health therapy more accessible.

TAO, founded in 2014 and commercially launched in July 2015, has created a lot of material over the past four years. It offers more than 400 videos embedded in 109 different sessions, a library and practice tools. Trying to figure out what to use and when to use can be complicated, Benton said.

“Our customers felt it could be really useful to have a chatbot that uses the AI to walk someone through the system – ask them questions, make suggestions, ask how they like what they just did and what might be most helpful next, so that it works with the user in the best way possible,” Benton said.

TAO’s 144 customers, including universities and colleges, community mental health centers, employee assistance programs, and government mental health services, provided input.

“From the beginning in TAO we’ve had user group meetings weekly, for different sets of users, and they have provided feedback, ideas and suggestions and all of that has been the basis of what we have developed,” she said.

TAO’s website currently features a small box that pops up in the bottom right corner and says, “welcome to live chat.” That’s the typical sales-oriented box on lots of websites, Benton said.

The chatbot under development will be very different.

“The first thing it will ask is how are you feeling today. You will select from a happy face to a sad face, and it will respond to how you are feeling that day with ‘would you like some immediate help’ or ‘what would be most helpful today’ to continuing on with what they had been doing. The response will be different based on the face they pick,” Benton said.

The chatbot will lead the user through a few suggestions that correspond with  those initial responses. It might suggest a mindfulness exercise, a video or an interactive educational session.

“Once they complete that, it will ask what did you think, did it work for you? They respond to what they did. The system actually learns what works for them so it can consistently deliver materials that work best for them,” Benton said. “The more people use it and the longer people use it, the smarter the system becomes.”

The chatbot’s customer-facing front end should be in place this fall, while work continues on the more complicated part, the back end that collects data, recording every action by every user and creating an artificial intelligence based machine learning system. TAO has hired two staffers to work on the system with more staff additions to come.

The $500,000 two-year grant from the National Science Foundation grant is the sixth NSF grant TAO has received, including a grant earlier this year to develop a French language version of its therapeutic software.

The support from the NSF has been instrumental in TAO’s growth, said Bob Clark, CEO.

TAO also has raised nearly $3.5 million in four rounds of funding, but grant funding comes without debt or dilution of equity.

“The important thing is you have to do exactly what you said you would do exactly the way you said you would do it, and it has to be beneficial to society,” Benton said.

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