Next week, Dr Tom Insel leaves his post as head of the US National Institute of Mental Health, a job that made him America’s top mental health doctor. Dr Insel is a neuroscientist and a psychiatrist and a leading authority on both the medicine and public policies needed to deal with problems of the mind. He’s 64 but he’s not retiring. He’s going to work for Google.
More precisely, he’s going to work for Google Life Sciences, one of the more exotic provinces of the online empire. He’s going to investigate how technology can help diagnose and treat mental health conditions. Google doesn’t just want to read your mind, it wants to fix it too.
It’s not alone. Apple, IBM and Intel are among technology companies exploring the same field. IBM this year carried out research with Columbia University that suggested computer analysis of speech patterns can more accurately predict the onset of psychosis than conventional tests involving blood samples or brain scans. Other researchers theorise that a person’s internet search history or even shopping habits (so handily recorded by your innocuous loyalty card) can identify the first signs of mental illness. Computers can now tell when something is about to go terribly wrong in someone’s mind.