Can artificial intelligence help prevent mental illness?
Technology entrepreneur David Plans knows first hand the risks of ignoring mental health. While going through security at Brussels Airport in 2003, he suddenly passed out, was rushed to hospital in an ambulance and flatlined in transit.
“I was shocked back into life and given some stern advice about overwork and stress, which I happily ignored,” he says. “Instead, as I was an artificial intelligence researcher with an interest in human physiology, I tried to build a system that would warn me if it were to ever happen again. I was convinced there had to be something wrong with me.”
In 2012, he founded London-based digital health company BioBeats to change the perception of mental health globally through the use of artificial intelligence and big data.
The company has developed a wearable device, an app and machine learning system to collect data and monitor users’ level of stress, before predicting when it could be the cause of a more serious or physical health condition.
Mental illness is one of the biggest medical challenges of the 21st century. According to the World Health Organisation, around 450 million people globally are affected by mental illness.
But two-thirds of people with a known mental condition, such as anxiety, depression and co-occurring disorders, fail to seek help from medical professionals. This can be due to a number of factors, including stigma and discrimination.
“While there has been an increase in mental health awareness in the past few years, the approach remains widely reactive,” says Plans. “However, preventative action can avert the onset of mental and physical illnesses, as well as manage existing conditions before they escalate into something more severe.”
Plans say his company is working to allow for a radically different approach to tackling stress and mental health challenges, putting the individual back in control. He continues: “We work with businesses who are committed to their workforce and who want to take a preventative approach to mental health and stress management.
“While the information we collect is completely private to each user, companies are able to learn through aggregated and anonymized data, to make better decisions around HR initiatives, employee wellbeing and culture.”
Transforming mental health treatments
The BioBase app provides users with real-time data on their personal wellbeing, allowing them to keep track of their mental and physical health.
“With the help of a wearable, we are able to collect passive data, such as sleep, activity and heart rate variability (HRV),” says Plans. “When combined with in-app mood-tracking, deep breathing exercises and executive function tests BioBase provides a comprehensive overview of one’s mental and physical wellbeing.
As well as helping users to identify potential mental health problems, the software also helps treat them. Plans explain: “The app is home to personalized wellbeing courses that help individuals to address and optimize their main areas of concern while identifying positive habits to put into practice.
“Because BioBase learns more about each user, it can provide personalized insights on sleep, activity and body stress as well as relevant tips to improve each area.”
The power of AI
For Plans, artificial intelligence is at the heart of his business. He says: “AI and machine learning applied to psychological, physiological and neurological data can be a powerful and positive disruptor in our collective approach to managing mental health.
“AI helps us personalize the experience to each user’s data, as well as identify patterns leading to disorder before it manifests itself more visibly.”
But he admits that tech alone is never the answer. “The human element is what will lead this transformation, while tech complements, informs and provides scale and depth in a way that has not been possible in the past,” says Plans.
“Tech allows us to dig deeper and obtain metrics, apply deep-science principles, and reach wider audiences with the use of existing devices, such as smartphones. The potential to predict and prevent instances of mental health through the creation and delivery of breakthrough technology changes everything.”
Looking ahead to the future, BioBeats hopes to develop even more interactive experiences for people impacted by mental health. “The use of machine learning techniques currently allows building models of mental disorder that help individuals and organizations assess mental wellbeing,” concludes Plans.
“In the near future, we’re going adapt these learning systems to actual AI, i.e. systems that will interact with the user directly as voiced mental health assistants in order to drive forward hyper-personalization of mental health prevention and digital therapeutics.
“Another aspect of future digital therapeutics at BioBeats will involve highly personalized forms of biofeedback based on systems that sonify and visualize body signals in order to augment each person’s mind/body connection, which is known to suffer under stress.”
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