By Isabelle Langlois
Mr. Young is always listening. He can follow you anywhere, answer your questions day or night, and, most importantly, he shows you the best ways to maintain a normal level of anxiety.
The little character communicates by text, free of charge. Described as a “personal guide to mental health,” Mr. Young embodies one of artificial intelligence’s many possible uses: the improvement of users’ wellbeing.
One of the co-founders, Edouard Ferron-Mallett, explains that the idea for the start-up came about thanks to a shared realization three years ago. “Some friends and I were talking about our symptoms. In my case, it was nausea. My friend was having trouble participating in social activities. By sharing our experiences, we realized that we were all dealing with anxiety issues.” The young entrepreneurs knew they were far from being the only ones feeling this sort of stress and decided to tackle the problem head-on.
Using research and their own experience as a reference, they first identified the target audience, deciding that people under 35 would be most likely to use their resource. “The goal was to use instant messaging to reach the millennial generation, but we are also realizing that other generations will be interested. We want to introduce Mr. Young to as many people as possible, regardless of their age.”
They believe that communication is a liberating first step. “Through our research, we learned that most people do not talk about their anxiety problems. This affects their efforts to deal with the problem, so much so that 80% of people with anxiety do not seek help.” A bot can respond to this need for anonymous, nonjudgmental and understanding contact. Mr. Young is friendly. He opens the discussion and asks questions based on cognitive-behavioural therapy. In particular, this approach allows the user to realize how anxiety affects his or her life.
More than just a form of therapy, the robot also connects the individual to support networks. He makes suggestions adapted to the information that he gathers. “Although there are many resources available, it’s often hard to find the one that’s right for you. Mr. Young helps guide users and highlights the available options.” Although the start-up notes that it does not provide scientific advice, it does works closely with mental health experts.
This ambitious project has been evolving since 2016. That year, co-founders Edouard Farron-Malett, Nicolas Urena and Arthur Degand presented a prototype at the Cooperathon competition on the application of new technology in the health sector. They were awarded the Desjardins Lab prize, consisting of a $2000 grant and the submission of their project in the AI XPRIZE competition. Their preparation for this major international competition led the start-up to develop the current version of Mr. Young, now used by hundreds of people.
The application is currently being actively developed. Its founders are particularly interested in working with new partners. Their collaborators now include such groups as the CHU Sainte-Justine, HEC Montréal, Desjardins, IBM and most recently the Montreal's Quartier de l’innovation.
The start-up is calling on everyone to get involved, including volunteers. Everybody’s help is precious. “We are ready to welcome the ideas of people who are motivated and involved. This is how we will make Mr. Young more complex and human.”
> For more information or to discover the app, visit www.mryoung.co !