Let’s Talk Artificial Intelligence & Depression

“Black and white shot of female silhouette standing near windows, Нью-Йорк, Техас, Соединенные Штаты Америки” by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash

[Warning: the following addresses some very sensitive topics. Proceed with caution.]

The culprit, it would seem from our discourse anyways, is technology. At the very least, our relationship with it.

And while that is likely (partially) true for certain ages and demographics, I’m curious whether we can alter our view of technology, to see it not as the problem in itself, but as the potential solution to the societal epidemic.

The core question I have is this:

Can we harness advancements in technology to improve not just our efficiency or effectiveness as a human race, but to drastically increase the quality of our lives?

In this instance, I would define “quality of life” not by economic opportunity, but by our ability to live comfortably in our own minds.

To not stress out over insignificant things. To not lose our cool in the face of spiritual tests. To catch ourselves before things get worse. To turn the car around when we are headed towards a cliff. To live when it seems easier to die.

That is the ultimate freedom.

Depression is one of the many inefficiencies or defects in this human operating system of ours. Yet, it is solved every day by the many people that overcome it.

My hope is that we can amplify these stories, extract the profound learnings, and write more stories of perseverance and defeat it with technology at our wings, not in spite of it.

Now, this is a serious discussion, one I don’t necessarily feel qualified to be a part of — but one I find necessary to be a part of.

I am no licensed psychologist or Silicon Valley futurist. I can’t explain to you with any sort of technical specificity what AI actually is. I have far more questions than I have answers. So I urge you to take the following with a grain of salt.

Let it get your gears turning. Poke holes in the logic. Make it better by inserting your understanding. And share all of that with me below or by emailing me at bykateward@gmail.com.

But first, let’s address “The More Manifesto.”

In many ways, the paradigms that we live in, that underpin the creation of our frequently-used devices in the first place (not the devices themselves), may be to blame for the increasing rates of depression.

We are made, from a young age, to desire one thing:

MORE.

To have more, be more, and do more. And by definition, this makes us feel generally unsatisfied with what we have now.

Technology is the pinnacle of our “more manifesto.” Its existence is a sheer desire for more productivity, efficiency, profitability, and connectedness.

It is this very philosophy that sits at technology’s core that trickles down to determine how we interact with it. We address our distraction with more productivity apps. We add more social media accounts when we are feeling disconnected. We pour more milk on our more cereal and spread more shmeer on our more bagels.

It’s no surprise then, in this always-on digital world, overwhelmed by our desire for “more,” we find ourselves disengaged, confused, unfocused… and depressed.

1 in 6 of us anyways.

It, therefore, seems counterintuitive to think that technology could solve a problem it has exacerbated, maybe even created. But that is where I believe that Artificial Intelligence may prove us wrong.

AI may not dismantle this “more manifesto” entirely, but it likely has the potential to help us shift what we want more of. More honesty, empathy, love, confidence, virtue, faith, strength — whatever helps us in the long-term, instead of the short-term.

Here’s how:

1. Better Diagnostics

The first step, in actively addressing any psychological imbalance, is calling a spade a spade. To address the root cause of something and to eradicate the issue entirely, you first must identify what the issue is.

The label “depression” is considered a common, but serious illness that “affects how you feel, the way you think, and how you act” according to the American Psychiatry Association. The cause is a mix of biochemical, environmental, personality, and genetic factors.

This description is overtly and intentionally general and likely the reason depression often goes undiagnosed and untreated. Parents lose children because the signs aren’t clear to them. Friends lose friends because they aren’t trained of how to properly intervene.

There are questions regarding which variables are more impactful. Are thoughts influencing drops and spikes in certain neurotransmitters or vice versa? Is a genetic predisposition driving the experience of depression or an environmental catalyst leading the pack?

Irrespective of what you believe, or what the science says, depression, we can all agree, is often blinding for the experiencer and incomprehensible for the observer. When you’re in it, you don’t even know it. You need someone, or something, to identify it for you. And when you’re on the outside, you need someone to guide you.

It is those things that I believe AI can help resolve with the following:

The Quantified Self

To diagnose something such as a depression, AI might look at the following factors:

What makes the integration of AI unique is that it won’t just be learning about you or the general population as modern medicine tries to do, it will be learning about both simultaneously. If it notices a key health pattern elsewhere or a symptom in others, it will begin looking for that in you as well.

But how will it do this?

Voice recognition software will measure tonality and authenticity. Cameras will pay attention to your posture. Scheduling apps will track your appointments and the people you’re with. HR monitors will measure the quality and quantity of your sleep and exercise. Finger pricks will help address neurotransmitter deficiencies. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Everything you can imagine will become a data point, a data point that can be mapped to find trends and patterns.

Truly, you will become:

The Quantified Self

With the right combination of data points, about your environment, personality, genetic history, and biochemical balances, artificial intelligence should be able to identify the arc — of when you’re headed in, are in, and headed out of a depression.

Deeper, More Authentic Interactions

Technology will help “catch you” before you slip all the way into a depressive period and to identify when you are in one. Because… you won’t be able to hide from it.

Nor will you likely want to.

Take this for example: I am more likely to be honest with my journal than with my therapist.

In the same way, if I am confident that Alexa respects me, without judgment, and with pure confidentiality, I’d likely be more honest with her than my therapist, too.

And if I am honest, she has a much better chance (than my therapist) of identifying exactly what’s “wrong” with me today. Not only that, unlike my therapist who I meet with once per week, Alexa has complete access to me every hour of every day and thus has more data points to work with.

2. Individualized Treatment

In the Western World, we often treat the symptoms instead of root causes of disease (dis-ease). We try to manage pain rather than eliminate it.

With enough data behind us, this will change. We will be able to develop algorithmic equations to go deeper and understand more about the body as a system, rather than as separate organs and limbs.

Because AI does a better job of thinking it comprehensive and complex systems than we do, it will notice patterns that we couldn’t possibly dream of:

Addressing Root Causes

We have a terrible tendency, as a human race, to forget the lessons we’ve already “learned.”

AI likely won’t let you get away with this. It’ll be obvious that the reason you are feeling unwell is because you’ve been eating Cheetos and scrolling mindlessly through social media all day, not because of an existential crisis you’re in.

What if you got up and went for a walk? Might that give you the clarity to see the depression? Might that make you open to the next nudge your AI will give you — to maybe call someone?

Depression, for some people, is actually just the effect of a series of dominoes being knocked over in the right order. Sometimes there’s an underlying health concern — such as some head trauma or induced biochemical deficiency. Sometimes it’s a result of some trauma.

But depression is often just the response to a series of things that are out of whack.

Tim Ferriss, in his essay, “Practical Thoughts on Suicide,” has a checklist of things he does when he feels himself slipping into a depressive period. I have a list, too. And I realize, when I’m not doing the things on my list, I tend to feel like sh*t.

What if AI could remind you of this? What if it could incentivize you to do the things in your best interest in ways that you’ll respond to? What if it could help eliminate improbable causes and identify more probable causes simply by tracking and analyzing (so you don’t have to)?

At the very least, by cognifying the process of diagnosing depression, we aren’t starting from the other team’s endzone. There’s much less yardage, for you and a doctor, to cover and there’s a clear path to a touchdown.

Manipulating The Variables

If you are empowered to change your situation and given the right tools and ideas, what will give you the motivation to actually make the effort?

Like a doctor, technology can’t force you to exercise, for example.

Rules, regulations, and incentives will be put in place to make that happen. This is where gamification — or the implementation of game principles — comes in.

Is there a way to design the system so that it feels fun to improve upon your situation?

With depression, there is certainly some level of intrinsic motivation to get out of it. But as was noted before, it’s also blinding. So, how can we make certain that people take the right actions to lead to their long-term happiness?

Extrinsic motivators — “the carrot and the stick.”

Imagine a world in which you couldn’t fill your daily prescription of Xanax until you meditated for twenty minutes. In which Alexa reported back to a digital pharmacy what your exercise habits for the day were. Or in which your shades automatically opened and woke you at 8 am because Vitamin D is what you’ve been prescribed.

I have no idea if this is plausible or what the legality concerns would be. But if the technology is as intelligent as we are predicting it will be, it will inform decisions like this — for us to prioritize natural remedies over pharmaceuticals perhaps.

And if we are smart, we will build systems that use human behavior against itself — tapping into the science of motivation.

3. Ongoing Monitoring

Because depression is all-consuming, it often is hard to extricate from real life. What makes it tough to break through is a feeling of permanence and permeation — that it will last forever and that it affects everything.

AI, with the help of AR and VR, very well may be able to dismantle some of these beliefs by using data and anecdotes to show us rather than tell us that this is untrue. And that, to any person in a depression, could be the difference between life and death.

Normalizing Depression

Right now, we can pull from thousands of sources to show rather than tell you how common these feelings you’re feeling really are. There’s plenty of data to support that you are not alone, whether you believe it or not. In grief, loss, depression, anxiety, etc.

AI will be able to exemplify normality in a way that resonates with you specifically. It will be able to show you how cyclical emotions and motivation really are. It will be able to pull from powerful historical examples to show you others, too. Whatever will work for you — it’ll do.

And with the tools at its disposal, it will convince you that this experience — the one you’ve been so isolated into — is completely normal.

Although you already know that you are not the only person on this planet with this particular set of problems and that you are more than capable of surviving them, AI will help materialize that in a way that makes it unavoidable.

Forced Detachment

AI will help you see that you are not depression by bringing you back to recent times when you were feeling happy, focused, and purpose-driven. It will show you the past versions of yourself before trauma and make you believe that there is an essence in you that simply cannot be touched.

It is with this space, between you and the depression, that you will be able to overcome it.

It will be able to help convince you that you are merely experiencing a period of depression, not a depressed person. By having a backlog of information about you and about your experiences, it will convince you to detach from your reality.

And it’ll present that information in a way that you will best understand — in tonality and phrasing that makes sense to you. It’ll keep finding ways to get through to you — to persist until you believe in it.

Ways that don’t make you want to say, “F you — that’s who I used to be” or “I’ll never be the same since X.” It’ll know you better than you know you, that very well may be a good thing.

Because well, it could save your life.

What are your thoughts on this? Does this idea — of technology helping us diagnose, address, and ultimately overcome psychological disorders — freak you out or make you feel hopeful? Would you trust an intelligent system with your thoughts, desires, and fears?

I’d love to know.

Comment below or email me at bykateward@gmail.com.

Caveat: This in no way has been a comprehensive analysis of Depression or Artificial Intelligence. As I mentioned at the start of this article, I have far more questions than answers. More imaginative ideas than technical understanding.

For interested parties — here’s my long (yet still uncomprehensive) list of questions and concerns not addressed in the above breakdown:

[It’s better (in my opinion) than the writing itself]

Thinking deeply about how to make myself and the world a little better. & writing about creators mostly | email: kate@onedayent.com

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