There is a global epidemic that has been silently brewing in recent decades. This epidemic refers to none other than the exponential growth of mental health problems around the world, which is now attracting significant attention due to its catastrophic consequences.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) released a groundbreaking report in 2020, highlighting the devastating effects of mental and substance use disorders (M/SUD). SAMHSA’s analysis found that M/SUD treatment spending from all public and private sources is expected to reach $280.5 billion in 2020, an increase from $171.7 billion in 2009. Even more Importantly, mental health problems place significant burdens on patients themselves, create incalculable challenges for patients’ families and care settings, and sadly result in countless lives lost to irreconcilable illnesses. Indeed, no amount of money or economic analysis can quantify the physical and emotional toll of mental illness.
Earlier this month, US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy released an advisory report titled Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation, highlighting the significant public health concerns caused by mental health issues. He specifically addresses loneliness and lack of social connection as a major concern and discusses his journey in recognizing them as problems: Loneliness is more than just a negative feeling: it damages both individual and social health. It is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity. And the harmful consequences of a society devoid of social connection can be felt in our schools, workplaces and civic organizations, where performance, productivity and engagement are diminished.
Fortunately, increased mental health awareness has ushered in significant innovation and investment in new remedies and treatment modalities. One such new concept is the use of AI in the mental health space.
With the advent of generative AI, conversational AI, and natural language processing, the idea of using AI systems to provide human companionship has now gone mainstream.
Google Cloud, which is at the forefront of developing scalable AI solutions, provides an in-depth look at what conversational AI is: Conversational AI works using a combination of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning (ML ). Conversational AI systems are trained on large amounts of data, such as text and speech. This data is used to teach the system how to understand and process human language. The system then uses this knowledge to interact with humans in a natural way. It constantly learns from its interactions and improves the quality of the response over time.
This means that with sufficient data, training and interactions, it is within the realm of a plausible reality that these systems can not only replicate human speech, but can eventually use billions of data points and evidence-based guidelines to potentially provide medical advice and therapy. Undoubtedly, companies like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are investing billions of dollars in this same technology, realizing that they are just steps away from the possible replication of human language and conversation. Once these companies are able to perfect this, the potential is limitless: everything from customer service to companionship and human relationships can become AI-driven.
In fact, test systems already exist. Take for example Pi, a personal AI system developed by the company Inflexion AI. Pi was created to give people a new way to express themselves, share their curiosities, explore new ideas, and experience trusted personal AI. Mustafa Suleyman, CEO and co-founder of Inflection AI explains: Pi is a new kind of AI, which is not only intelligent but also has good EQ. We think of Pi as a handy digital companion whenever you want to learn something new, need a sounding board to talk through a difficult moment in your day, or just hang out with a curious and kind counterpart. . Along with Suleyman, Inflection AI’s other co-founder is Reid Hoffman, who also co-founded the professional networking company, LinkedIn. Inflexion AI has raised hundreds of millions of dollars in seed funding to support its technology.
However, this incredible technology brings with it many potential concerns. While AI certainly has the capabilities to address potential inequalities in access, deliver healthcare services cost-effectively, and even provide companionship to those who need it most, it must be developed with safety barriers in place for numerous reasons.
First, in an area as sensitive as mental health, patient privacy and data security must be of the utmost importance. Using AI technology in this capacity means that a significant amount of sensitive patient information will also be collected. Developers must ensure that this data is never compromised and that patient privacy is always top priority, especially in a landscape of growing cybersecurity threats.
Furthermore, perhaps the most important concern is existential: how far should humanity go with all this? While the benefits of AI are certainly numerous, innovators need to be cautious about the limitations of these systems. In particular, systems are only as good as the models and datasets they can learn from, meaning that in the wrong hands, these systems could easily deliver incorrect or dangerous recommendations to vulnerable populations. Therefore, companies must apply strict practices on responsible development.
Finally, as a general social commentary, battling mental health issues and an epidemic of loneliness using AI systems sets a dangerous precedent. No system can (yet) replicate the complexities of human nature, interaction, emotions and feelings. Healthcare leaders, regulators and innovators need to remember this basic principle and should prioritize viable and sustainable measures to solve the mental health crisis, such as training more mental health professionals and increasing access of patients in care.
Ultimately, whatever the solution, the time to act is now before this epidemic becomes too catastrophic to manage.
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