BITs and BYTEs

One of the upsides of so many snowstorms this winter has been the chance to catch up on reading. I’ve been enjoying Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s book the Second Machine Age about the social revolution instigated by the digital revolution. One story they recount is about the Dutch chess grand master Jan Hein Donner.  When the authors ask Donner how he would prepare for a match with a supercomputer, he replies, “I’d bring a hammer.”

Computers are getting faster at an awesome or alarming rate, depending on your point of view. Brynjolfsson and McAfee, who are both awed and alarmed, describe the exponential rate of progress over the past decade. Quoting Hemingway about how a man goes broke (“gradually and then all of a sudden”), they see a recent sudden burst in progress in technology. Whether in cars that drive themselves, Jeopardy-winning computers, or smartphones with SIRI, technological challenges facing profound obstacles only a decade ago are now milestones in the rear view mirror of progress.

All of this brings to mind how technology will change the diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders. On the diagnostic side, we already have sensors built in to many of our devices—smart phones, computers, appliances—that are constantly capturing data on location, movement, and communication and can help to create real-time pictures of functional status. Activity monitors that can monitor sleep and movement have been around for three decades. Phone sensors can “diagnose” depression from changes in voice quality. Some have suggested that credit card companies may be the first to detect the onset of a manic episode, although that information seems largely neglected. Qualcomm has recently announced a $10 million XPRIZE for a “tricorder”—a 5-pound device that can diagnose 15 diseases non-invasively.  Imagine how technology could provide the sensors to detect signs of mental disorders. This may not win the XPRIZE, but the potential is real.

by Thomas Insel, National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)

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