The problems of poverty, disease, and environmental decay cannot be solved merely by the use of more and more scientific technology. Technological fixes usually turn out to be a jumble of procedures that have unpredictable consequences and are often in conflict with natural forces. Indeed, technological magic is not much better than primitive magic in dealing with the fundamental issues of human existence, and in addition, it is much more destructive.
–Rene Dubos, 1967
At a recent conference billed as an exploration of the intersection of Social Impact and Exponential Technologies, a prominent tech luminary spoke on the increasing incidence of depression and how technology will be essential to dealing with it.
She walked us through data showing that depression is projected to increase several-fold in the next decade. Other data laid out the developed world’s current capacity to treat depression. There was a clear and growing gap. We simply will not have the resources to handle the epidemic.
We must, the speaker said, find a way to increase our capacity to serve those grappling with depression. It’s not possible to train enough therapists in time to offer support. Fortunately, exponential technology, specifically adaptive intelligence, can help.
Currently, those working with depression have limited options for getting support. Almost all of them involve having to find and vet a therapist, go to therapy consistently, and/or get a prescription medication. With adaptive intelligence, help could be as close as an app on your phone.
The speaker walked us through a use case. Someone feels unmotivated, disconnected, and depressed. They log on to a secure (much emphasis was placed on ‘secure’) app and are greeted by an adaptive Artificial Intelligence that approximates warmth and curiosity. With a few questions customized to inspire reflection and sharing, the AI triages users.
Some people may only need a bit of space for reflection. For them, the AI provides the necessary level of support.
Others may require more intensive support. The AI detects this and links them to a trained therapist for a consultation.
This technology driven solution solves for the problem of capacity. Exponential technology saves the day.
I listened to the talk with a growing sense of dread and frustration in my gut.
Much as I may have my doubts about AI, the solution the speaker proposed didn’t raise my hackles. It was the fact that it grew out of, I believe, the wrong question and therefore solved the wrong problem.
Working from solid data sets, the speaker had developed a question: how do we expand the capacity of the mental health sector to confront the increase in depression?
The AI solution could work. And it has the advantage of being scalable.
But if we zoom out a bit, we can see that the solution could have unintended consequences.
By expanding society’s capacity to ‘deal with’ depression, the proposed AI would support the social structures, behaviors, and beliefs that often lead to depression in the first place. Furthermore, by driving people towards greater engagement with technology, it potentially deepens social isolation and the disintegration of interpersonal community.
In other words, it solves the symptom of a deeper problem and, in the process, potentially exacerbates the root problem.
I found myself curious about what would happen if the question the speaker had asked had been more along the lines of ‘what is causing this dramatic rise in depression and how can technology contribute to a deep, lasting solution?’
One of the major causes of depression in developed countries is social isolation and lack of vibrant community. As we become more technologically advanced, we depend less on our community for survival. In many countries, it’s possible to move through an entire week without meaningful social interaction. That lack of interaction leads to feelings of purposelessness, disconnection, and depression. It has gotten so severe that the UK recently appointed a Minister of Loneliness to address the challenges posted by mounting isolation.
What if, instead of using technology as a stop-gap measure, it were used to bring people together in community for meaningful interaction? In other words, what if we put people, instead of technology, at the center of the solution?
‘Innovation’ has become something of a buzzword over the last decade. As has ‘disruption.’ Here’s a question:
If Rene Dubos, writing in the mid-20th Century, identified the same issue and wrote essentially what I just wrote (albeit much more eloquently) over 50 years ago, how innovative or disruptive are these new technological solutions?
If we look at them in relative isolation, they represent technological innovation. AI is new. AI is disruptive in the short-term.
But if we widen our lens to, again, zoom out, what do we see?
I believe we see a civilization that has long turned to technology and scientific ‘miracles’ to solve human problems to the detriment of the broader community and even the planet. There’s nothing truly innovative about this. It’s a new iteration of an old pattern.
I’m not a luddite. Technology is cool and useful.
I am, however, suggesting that true innovation and disruption would put human beings, with all of their complexity and hard-wired need for connection, support, and community, at the center of technological development. True innovation would employ technology as a tool to bring us into greater alignment with ‘natural forces’–with the earth, our own intuition, with each other–instead of simply solving surface level manifestations of deeper challenges.
Imagine what that disruption would look like.