Hillel's Tech Corner: Kai.ai flips the script on therapy

Kai.ai was founded at the beginning of 2020 and quickly raised a pre-seed round of investment from a number of serial entrepreneurs and academics.

Kai.ai company (photo credit: Courtesy)
Kai.ai company
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Mental health, therapy, counseling, anxiety, depression. What do those words mean to you? What associations do you have when you read them? Unless you’ve experienced some of those things, you might have negative connotations. Most people do.
It’s 2020, and even without the obvious consequences on mental health of a global pandemic, it is time we stop applying stigmas to mental health and understand that it is as real, common, and “normal” as any physical condition or challenge.
Once we get past the stigma, getting therapy brings with it an additional challenge, the financial burden, and the lack of accessibility. There is, however, some good news.
When it comes to artificial intelligence and natural language processing (NLP), we may just have the technological capabilities to offer therapy to those in need using their regular messaging service like WhatsApp and without a real person on the other end. Sounds crazy, right?
A Tel Aviv based start-up called Kai.ai doesn’t think it’s so crazy, and they have the talent and expertise to back up their claim. Kai.ai was founded at the beginning of 2020 and quickly raised a pre-seed round of investment from a number of serial entrepreneurs and academics, including Micha Breakstone, Sagi Schliesser and Elad Bleistein.
The team building Kai.ai, led by Alex Frenkel, Netanel Lev and Ziv Shalev, brings decades of experience across fields including messaging apps, finance, gaming, and the world of psychology with both Frenkel and Shalev having a master’s degree in psychology.
Frenkel, the CEO and co-founder of Kai, was always interested in people from a very young age. He got his bachelor’s degree in psychology at the University of Haifa, followed by a master’s degree in clinical psychology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He immediately began practicing for three years teaching general therapy with a focus on clinical psychology and emotional therapy with different variants.
Frenkel then transitioned into the technology sector, helping to launch products that are used by millions of people around the world. Some of the products he helped build include Zlango, Gett, Sears Israel’s personal shopping companion and social e-commerce platform, Colu, and Kin, from the team behind Kik’s messaging app.
The other two founders are no less extraordinary. Lev was most recently VP R&D at Kin, previously also at Sears Israel. Shalev comes from a hacking background where he built and sold his first gaming start-up at just 16!
Alright, so we have a talented team, a massive market, and some cutting-edge tech, but I’m sure you’re still asking yourself the million-dollar question. Can AI really replace a therapist?
Well, right after I signed up for Kai.ai and got to know the product a little, I asked Frenkel that very question.
Frenkel’s response cleared things up for me. He said “No, I don’t think it should... it’s more around daily self-work that has been scientifically proven to help.”
Kai.ai is not here to tell you to fire your therapist, it’s here to help you become a better you as part of an ongoing commitment to your mental well-being.
Kai.ai, short for Kairon, the ancient Greek mentor of heroes, is an AI-powered life coach and companion that sits in the middle between traditional talk therapy and on-your-own-with-a-timer meditation apps. Kai.ai is designed to support mental well-being and help ease anxiety, depression, and many other life stressors by integrating wellness tools and techniques according to the Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT) model.
The way I see it is this. Mental health is a real global challenge as much as we like to pretend it is not. COVID-19 amplified this challenge tenfold. We need solutions and we need scale, because more and more people suffer from mental health conditions. That is what Kai.ai is aiming to do, to offer tools to those in need and to do it in the most seamless way possible.
No download, no installation, no app, just a simple conversation in the messaging app you are already using.
Now let’s get one level deeper and talk about the type of therapy that Kai.ai offers and how it accomplishes its goals and helps you achieve yours!
ACT grew from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), and is widely used by therapists around the world. With proven scientific results. At its core, ACT aims to ask people to reflect on their values and beliefs, and create a life that is rooted in purpose, presence and acceptance.
With Kai.ai, you learn to identify your values and create actionable steps, such as goal setting and daily reflections, and learn techniques to develop your psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is about learning not to turn away from what is painful, and instead to turn toward our discomfort in a way that is open, curious and compassionate.
The exercises train users to develop their emotional awareness by focusing their attention on living in the present moment in line with their deepest values, and discover how sometimes our actions may be in conflict with our bigger picture and the life we want.
A bit about the tech. As an AI hybrid, Kai.ai combines machine learning models with NLP to deliver sophisticated and tailored responses to users. Kai.ai’s use of NLP makes it possible to extract keywords and phrases users write so it can understand the intent of language, and generate an appropriate, helpful and empathetic response. Kai.ai also provides an application to review previous interactions and see clearly how their emotions and feelings have shifted and progressed in terms of overall wellbeing.
The interactions and messages are, of course, 100% secure and private. With Kai.ai there is a complete separation between the conversation data and the user’s account.
Listen, out of all the companies I’ve covered in this column, this one might be the most controversial. Someone who needs emotional support depending on artificial intelligence? I get it. It sounds a bit too ahead of its time.
The way I see it? Kai.ai gives you an extra layer of support right in your WhatsApp and even for the sole purpose of talking about your inner feelings in a judgment free zone with full end to end encryption? For that alone, Kai.ai might be onto something big. It’s early days, but one thing’s for sure. Kai.ai is off to a promising start and is guided by a very important mission that is only getting more significant with every day that passes.