Dr. Rob Brisk, Clinical Research Fellow at Craigavon Area Hospital, Belfast casts his mind to the future


AI in neuroscience is going to be a key part of how the human mind finally explains itself, and the implications will be huge. Within our lifetime, brainwave-decoding AI technology might return speech to victims of motor neurone disease or allow amputees seamless control of robotic limbs. Perhaps Elon Musk and Neuralink will succeed in bridging the divide between people and machines. Maybe things go exponential from here: our cyborg descendants will be smart enough to redesign their own cerebral hardware, which will allow them to create even better designs, which will mark them smarter still…

Google ‘AI in mental health’ and you’re likely to come across algorithms for detecting deteriorating mood from social media posts or vocal waveforms; chat bots whose very inhumanity allows people to open up more than they could with a human therapist; apps that deliver personalised motivational prompts to exercise or practice CBT. All are fantastic innovations of health technology. Widen the lens, though, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. The impact of AI on our psychological wellbeing is likely to go far beyond the intended consequences.

Two hundred years ago, another technological revolution was sweeping the globe. Though an 18th century mill and a modern data centre might appear to be from different universes, at their heart lies a common theme: automation. The mechanisation of key industries drove progress in many fields, medicine very much among them. But it also stripped many skilled tradespeople of their vocations, leaving them purposeless and poor, while the merchant classes and landed gentry aggregated huge wealth. According to researchers at the University of Cambridge, who studied the mental health of 400,000 people across the UK, the psychological scars of this period are still visible today. They describe the elevated rates of anxiety and depression across the industrial heartlands of north England and Wales as the “hidden heritage” of 19th century automation.

As we stand on the cusp of the fourth industrial revolution, one has to wonder: are we in better shape this time around? Looking at the deeply polarised societies either side of the Atlantic, at the growing poverty gap and persistently unequal opportunities, it’s hard to be too optimistic. There’s no doubt that AI is going to be an enormous force for good in the 21st century, particularly as the knight in shining armour that rescues many health services from COVID-19’s crippling blows. But in sectors that aren’t so desperately understaffed, and where the human factor is less prized, it might leave many people without a reason for getting out of bed and putting on a shirt in the morning. And who among us enjoys our best mental health with unpaid rent notices piling up on the doormat?

Of course, it doesn’t have to go that way. AI is set to increase productivity across all major industries, from energy to transport, agriculture to manufacturing. By the end of the century, there is no technical reason why every person across the globe cannot enjoy access to high quality healthcare, an adequate food supply and connection to the wider world as basic human rights. No technical reason that our grandchildren cannot live in a society where the external risk factors for poor mental health are minimised, where diagnosis and treatment of psychological illness are prioritised, where the lower tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy are non-issues and bright minds across the world can further the understanding of medical science through high level research. No technical reason, but almost seven billion biological ones.

The key to determining what comes to pass – the idealist’s vision or the dystopian nightmare – will be the quality of the ideas and conversations had by ordinary people. They need to be had at scale, sure. But as one visionary who changed the world said, “Start small, think big.” And the best people to start talking about what we want from an AI-enabled future are that small minority who actually understand the technology. If you’re reading this, that probably means you.

So here’s the ask as you go about your fantastic work developing the neuroscience and mental health solutions of tomorrow: start the conversation. Help people understand what you do, and what ‘thinking machines’ might mean for human minds. Explain that you don’t need a PhD in computer science to have a say in how technology shapes the future. Highlight how lessons learnt from the pandemic about our way of life and its impact on mental health might feed into discussions of an AI-enabled future.

Just try not to mention the cyborgs.