Rosalind Picard, a researcher building artificial intelligence systems and heading a program on affective computing at the Media Lab is at the forefront of a radical new idea: that your emotional state can be objectively measured using wearable devices or by tracking patterns in the way you type and talk on your mobile phone. Emotions and feelings — once seen as fuzzy and ill-defined — have physical correlates that can be measured and described, she says. The resulting data can help predict whether a person is becoming depressed or anxious, experiencing other mental challenges — or starting to improve.
“I’ve always found emotion like weather,” Picard says. “You can measure the rainfall, you can measure the barometric pressure, you can measure the temperature and humidity. Every now and then, a particular set gets a special name like a hurricane, much like you can have a special state called anger or depression. But underneath the anger or the depression are lots of continuously changing things in our body that change with stress, with social change, with physical activity, with novelty, with what you eat and how you sleep. As we start to make it easy for those things to be measured, we start to make it possible to build the equivalent of meteorological models that forecast the weather.”
But while you can’t change the weather, it might be possible to change your emotional forecast. Picard is working on a system that will send people alerts about moods that are on the way, like a gathering storm — along with suggestions for ways to intervene.
“I’ll glance at my phone and it says: ‘40 percent chance your stress is going to be higher, 20 percent chance you’re going to be sick, 40 percent chance your mood is going to drop,’” Picard says. “We also hope to give data-driven recommendations of things they might consider doing if they want to change the weather forecast: ‘Go to bed two hours early. Get some sunshine and an hour of walking. Reach out to one of these friends who usually cheers you up.’”
Picard makes a bold claim about the potential of the technology: she thinks most of the depression that people experience can eventually be prevented. But she’s not alone in hoping to use mobile devices to improve mental health, from apps that offer real-time counseling to “digital therapeutics” that will eventually be prescribed for people suffering from a range of conditions.