Vici in action
  • Professional coaching – the kind for which executives easily pay R1,500 per hour – can be automated with good results, says the University of Stellenbosch Business School.
  • Its coaching head designed a chatbot to help people set goals and stick to them; it is available for free via Facebook Messenger or Telegram.
  • Compared to a control group, people who used the chatbot hit their goals at a much higher rate, he says in a pre-print study.
  • And when it comes just to goal attainment, the chatbot may be just as good as humans.
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A free chatbot that allows users to figure out their goals and stick to them may, in at least one area, be better than professional coaches for which executives easily pay R1,500 per hour, according to a set of new pre-print studies from the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

The studies show that, for the narrow measure of goal attainment, the chatbot he designed does as well as human coaches, says Nicky Terblanche, head of the MPhil Management Coaching programme at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

The findings are for Vici, a chatbot available to anyone via Facebook Messenger or the Telegram messaging app.

Human coaches are better than Vici at some aspects of coaching, says Terblanche: lowering stress, improving resilience, and increasing psychological wellbeing.

But for goal attainment, the chatbot did as well as humans.

That makes it a promising candidate for wide use in a field where cost is a significant barrier – and it is now being piloted for use by unemployed young people.

"In the goal-setting and progress conversations, Vici asks explicit questions that help users to continuously assess how realistic their goals are, how committed they are, and if they have the resources they need," says Terblanche about the system. "Vici also helps users to break their goals down into long-term and short-term, because progress and feedback on short-term goals helps keep the person realistic and on track towards the long-term goal."

Terblanche recorded a 55% increase in goal attainment for those who used Vici, while people going it alone as a control group saw a 24% increase in getting to where they wanted to be. The more often people talked to Vici, the more they increased their goal attainment, he says, and that momentum could still be seen three months after they stopped using the chatbot.

Such results show "there is a compelling case to employ AI coaching to democratise this helping service and extend it to previously excluded societies", says Terblanche.

The two upcoming papers on Vici are titled "Artificial Intelligence coaching, it works! The impact of AI coaching on goal attainment" and "It finally happened: An Artificial Intelligence coach rivals human coaches".

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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