At MARCo Technologies LLC, CEO Jacob Boyle and his team are using artificial intelligence and robotics to increase access to mental health treatments.
The Newark, N.J.-based company’s flagship product is a plush humanoid service robot named MARCo. People can interact with the robot in several ways designed to, among other things, brighten their mood, reduce their anxiety, and clear their heads.
Robot to give users more control of their mental health
The robot companion was programmed with what Boyle calls “five objectives of care.” Those include companionship, guided meditation and relaxation, talk support, biofeedback, and high-alert outreach.
“Mental health is not a one-size-fits-all approach,” he told Robotics 24/7. “Everyone is different and reacts differently to different types of care. We try to make it as flexible and personalized as possible for the end user.”
To provide medically sound advice and guidance, Boyle said the company actively enlists medical professionals for support and guidance. MARCo offers mental exercises and activities based on three forms of treatments—cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and behavioral activation.
“When taking care of your mental health, MARCo has two mainlines of thoughts,” Boyle said in a video discussing how to use the robot (see below). “Talk about things, or take action.”
Users can share their thoughts in MARCo’s journal, receive therapy in its talk support section, go through a guided mediation, or play a game in the robot’s fun and games section.
MARCo was developed to help “give anyone seeking mental healthcare support someone to talk to that is similar to a human therapist while also providing data feedback back to both professional and non-professional caregivers,” Boyle said.
While the company sells a standalone robot, MARCo’s software can also be accessed on a browser or on iOS and Android.
MARCo app is out in the field
The app has been downloaded more than 1,000 times for personal use, Boyle said. MARCo Technologies also has a number of institutional partners that are paying to use the service. Through those partnerships, the app has been downloaded between 8,000 to 10,000 times, said the company.
With supply chain constraints, MARCo doesn’t have as many physical robots out in the field, but a few dozen are being used by colleges and high schools.
The company offers several subscription models for the robot/online service. For $880, a robot can be bought to be used for three years, Boyle said. At the end of those three years, the user will be given the option to subscribe to the next model for buyback credits, or they can subscribe to the software as a service for $72 annually.
That covers the costs of the company’s specialized version of the robot and software specifically designed for schools and corporations.
A lighter, direct-to-consumer, version of the robot can be bought for $449 under that same three-year subscription model. The cost of the software is the same.
Boyle said MARCo is helping address severe staffing shortages at college and high school counseling centers.
Language technology powers MARCo interactions
The biggest bedrock technologies powering MARCo is AI and natural language processing, Boyle said.
MARCo operates within a cloud model, Boyle added. He said that when one MARCo learns something new, they all do.
Boyle said he'd categorize the way MARCo’s AI works into two different categories.
On one end, MARCo uses a chatbot structure to understand quick speech or text inquiries from the user moving around the operating system looking to do activities such as meditation or playing game. For more complex longer-form conversations, such as talk support, MARCo is picking up on certain key words in a larger body of text to identify patterns and classify them into sections, Boyle said.
“So, if you were talking for 35 minutes about your day, it’s just not one input, one output,” Boyle said. “It’s aggregating all of the sentences and so forth, and sort of classifying sections of what you said. ‘Is this a healthy though?’ What are the emotions based on the 12 different emotional scale?’ ‘Does this fall within a category of a high-risk event like suicide or self-harm?’”
Boyle said there are hundreds of categories built into the system. Based on how each sentence is ranked, the robot is able to determine what is the best course of action. The company also uses a third type of AI that gives MARCo the insight to respond.
Medical professionals share insights
Boyle has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from The College of New Jersey, and he acknowledged that he didn’t know a lot about mental health science when he started MARCo, aside from his own experiences with therapy and seeing other family members living with severe chronic depression and anxiety.
When building out the company, Boyle said knew he needed to get insight from qualified medical professionals. So, the company developed an advisory board of licensed practitioners that laid out the therapy and innovation models that MARCo uses, he said.
“We have psychology undergraduate researchers actually applying these and developing these conversations,” Boyle said. “We do continual review. It wasn’t just like a 'one and done' kind of deal. When we have an upgrade to the AI, we run a lot of things back with those professionals.”