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With the excitement and hype building around virtual reality, Chris Milk famously referred to VR as an “empathy machine.” Immersion in a 360-degree landscape can, indeed, create empathy, but so too can plain text, argues the startup Koko. Today Koko received $2.5 million to close a funding round, money the company will use to bring its emotionally intelligent A.I. to chatbots and virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa.

The idea is not just to make interactions with a bot more closely resemble interactions with a human but also to help people experiencing mental health emergencies, something a lot of bots fail to take into account.

Every time a person who feels stressed or in need of advice speaks to the Koko bot — available on Facebook Messenger, Kik, Telegram, and an API in beta — they are connected to an anonymous community of supportive people in more than 150 countries.

When the company was created at MIT Media Lab in 2014, moderation of Koko bot chats was done manually by cofounders Fraser Kelton and Rob Morris.


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Today, one in 10 responses is still handled by a human moderator, but — as a result of machine learning and smarter A.I. — 90 percent of chat activity on KokoBot is moderated by Koko AI. Approximately 99 percent of issues receive a response, and 90 percent of those responses are deemed helpful, the company said in a statement.

Koko’s A.I., trained to identify people with malicious behavior and those who try (but fail) to help, is part of Koko’s “big long-term vision,” Kelton said in a phone interview with VentureBeat. The A.I. now helps surface human responses that are deemed helpful, something Koko wants to make available to other bots, chat app platforms, and virtual assistants through an application programming interface (API).

“So if you post about a school stress and an upcoming exam and how that makes you feel, and we have an existing post in our dataset that we can programmatically identify as being very, very similar to that post you just made, we’ll serve up an existing response from the data we already have to you in the voice of KokoBot,” Kelton said.

In other words, instead of saying “I’m sorry to hear that” to a person who says they’re stressed about a test tomorrow and thinks they’re going to fail, Alexa may say something about how anxiety is a normal physiological response and that a little anxiety sharpens the mind and helps you succeed.

KokoBot is available in the Kik Bot Shop today, but in the future, Koko may become part of the Kik platform, there to assist any of Kik’s 300 million users, said Kik spokesperson Rod McLeod in an email. Words like “depressed,” “sad,” or “break up,” could be used to trigger KokoBot.

“We’re also looking to integrate Koko into other bot experiences — like when a user is going to inflict harm on him/herself, a conversation with Koko would then be offered in order to provide the user with the mental health support they need to get better,” McLeod said. “We’re experimenting with other wellness services like Crisis Text Line.”

In June, Facebook Messenger and Kik announced plans to work with Crisis Text Line, a group of volunteers who chat with people experiencing everything from relationship issues and isolation to anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

Also in June, Crisis Text Line received more than $23 million in order to reach more people. Since 2013, Crisis Text Line has exchanged more than 20 million messages. Some 80 percent of messages received by Crisis Text Line come from people under the age of 25.

“Teens are our primary demographic, and integrating services like Koko’s directly into our platform helps ensure our users have access to the emotional support they need, when they need it,” said Kik CEO Ted Livingston in a statement released today.

When the KokoBot moderation system classifies a post as a crisis, Kelton said, the individual receives a private note from KokoBot with resources that include Crisis Text Line.

“We remind them that they are always welcome on KokoBot but that it’s not for crisis situations and that we want them to receive the help they need. Their post does not go live on the network,” he said.

Koko is one of multiple MIT Media Lab spinoff startups now in the mental wellness and emotion-tracking space.

Affectiva is best known for emotion-tracking in video. Its technology is now being licensed by virtual reality companies. Mental wellness tracker Companion by Cogito is currently being tested by patients and doctors at a Brigham and Women’s Hospital study in Boston.

Companies like Google, Microsoft, and Apple have also shown interest in emotion-tracking.

A study conducted at MIT and Northwestern University in 2015, led by Koko cofounder Morris, found that 166 people who had exhibited symptoms of depression and then used KokoBot experienced some form of positive impact.

The $2.5 million round of funding announced today was led by Omidyar Network and Union Square Ventures. Omidyar Network is also a funder of Crisis Text Line.

Updated 9:06 a.m. Aug. 9, 2016 to clarify a fact stated in the original version of this story. The original version said “Today, one in 10 responses is still handled by a human” when in fact it should have said one in 10 responses is still handled by a human moderator.

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