Widespread use of AI could spur mental-health challenges

Technology and artificial intelligence can play important roles in helping to address mental-health issues, but they also have the potential to greatly exacerbate them, according to Bill Wilkerson, executive chairman at Mental Health International and an advisory board member at EQ Care. 

Speaking at Benefits Canada’s 2020 Mental Health Summit on Nov. 13, he pointed to studies demonstrating AI’s ability to accurately diagnose mental-health conditions as evidence of technology’s potential to help. Indeed, one 2017 study from IBM Canada Ltd. and the University of Alberta found AI improved the diagnosis of schizophrenia by 74 per cent.

However, he said, the growing use of technology is one of a number of factors that are swirling together to produce “human distress at the clinical level.” These factors include everyday uncertainty, apprehension about the future and isolation, as well as the pandemic-spurred loss of livelihoods, family and potentially homes.

Read: Using AI to gauge employee well-being, satisfaction

“When we talk about the question of technology overlaid onto the societal disruptions of a viral pandemic, my attitude toward AI and its vast infusion is somewhat more cautionary.” 

The mass adoption of AI and automation in businesses, which is already starting to eliminate jobs, may also be accelerating or worsening people’s mental-health challenges, said Wilkerson.

“When I hear someone talk about a ‘juicy marketplace’ [for new technology], I would [say] . . . that ‘juicy marketplace,’ where we’re just coming forward with new products, is a different experience for the person among the [millions] in the world today whose jobs will in some form change, possibly excluding them or disappear altogether.” 

Mental illnesses are partly based on genetic predisposition and partly on the person’s experiences and the environment in which they live and work, he added. “AI can enhance those environments if we will it to be the case, but if it becomes like a hurricane coming through over time, then we are not going to be able to sustain even the current levels of mental [illness], let alone the damaged levels coming out of this pandemic.”

Read: What factors are impacting Canadians’ mental health during pandemic?

Advocating for a slate of national standards governing how AI is used, Wilkerson also noted Apple Inc. chief executive officer Tim Cook has talked openly about the need to blend technology with human values. “Essentially, the core of one’s mental health and well-being is that person’s capacity to live in the world of which they are a part. When that world has created circumstances that are adverse to normal human behaviour, that is when these [mental-health] conditions will develop and arise.”

Further, he noted several studies have already demonstrated AI’s potential to absorb the biases of the people who are building and designing these programs, incorporating racism and sexism into processes that are supposed to be impartial.

While AI becomes increasingly prevalent in business solutions, more than 80 per cent of S&P 500 company asset values are now in intangibles or “the things that people do: ideas [and] innovation. What do you patent? An idea, an approach — intellectual property is the output of the human brain,” said Wilkerson.

He urged human resources professionals to recognize and remember the power and potential in their human capital. Employees, he said, are “quickly becoming the only non-replicable source of advantage to companies today.”

Read more coverage of the 2020 Mental Health Summit.