AI for mental health
There are a lot of solutions and products out there to help, monitor and control our physical health but what is out there to help with mental health problems?
Limbic is one answer to this, a scalable solution designed with growing mental health problems in mind. Ross Harper and Sebastiaan de Vries, came together to co-found Limbic and build the world’s first emotion detection AI platform for consumer wearables.
"Where did the idea come from?"
Harper originally had the idea whilst studying his undergraduate degree in neuroscience, recognising that to really understand the brain we need mathematical approaches. Therefore, he did his masters in mathematical modelling and married these two elements together for his PhD in computational neuroscience. Harper explained: “This gave me a very formal education in AI, but coming from a very neurobiological background. It was this that made the intelligence part of AI appear too narrow. It seemed to ignore a key part of human intelligence, which is emotional intelligence and empathy, i.e. recognising the emotional states of those around us, and using this to inform our decision making.”
He added that although this is a high level concept, when he met de Vries back in 2017, he just got it. de Vries, who has a background in software engineering, aims to develop products that people love to use, and had come to the same conclusion but from a very different angle.
“In order to create a product people love to use, we had to tap into their emotion and the product itself needs to have an emotional intelligence to create a feeling you want the user to feel,” they both explained. So after agreeing that AI missed that emotional component they spent a year and a half working together to develop the technology, which is essentially digitised empathy.
"How does it work?"
Harper explained: “It predicts emotional state from users based on wearable data, such as optical heartbeat. Once we cracked the tech and our algorithms were performing better than anyone else in the world (as far as we are aware), we sat down and looked at what the use case could be.”
Harper and de Vries wanted to pin-point where their emotion detection system needed to be used first to bring about maximum impact. It didn’t take them long to realise that mental health is a tremendous problem which really suffers from a lack of quantifiability. Harper explained they are now developing on top of these core technologies and they have been working on a mental health monitoring system which uses wearable devices to keep track of a patient’s psychological state.
Limbic does this through sitting on top of existing wearable hardware devices, which includes an optical heart beat sensor. Harper explained: “We are a software AI company, and we have been working with a number of different wearables, but first and foremost our goal and vision is to be a software layer that sits on top any wearable device.”
de Vries explained: “The problem in any CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) treatments is patient engagement. If I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression, I go and see a psychologist and they want me to do two things - one is to talk about my faults and feelings to help them better understand how to make me better. The other is to go and do things that will probably uplift your mood.”
But he continued to say in both these instances the patients more often than not struggle. “Both these tasks can actually be really difficult to do when you are ill, it’s not because they don’t want to get better, patients can really struggle with something when it requires too much attention.”
So what Limbic do is help people to keep track of how they are feeling and why they are feeling a certain way, only if extreme emotions are detected through the proprietary AI, and on the other side Limbic collects all the information from the wearable device so that they can measure more accurately what might make people happy.
“So a psychologist will just guess and say, why don’t you go for a walk, or a run, or try this. But we are able to understand more quickly the relationship between behaviour and mood, and therefore help you work up to a happier life more quickly” de Vries explained.
The AI technology that Limbic is working on is tested and validated in a laboratory environment. Harper added: “We are currently undergoing clinical trials with the AI, and we are working with a clinical psychologist, who will ultimately be the customer to build the final form of the product.”
The product is currently in prototyping and it’s in development with psychologists, which basically means the AI is driving smart behaviours. On the flip side the clinician facing dashboard and the patient facing app is now being constructed. Harper added: “That’s the easy bit really, it’s the back end AI that has taken us a while – but we now have that locked in!”
"Have you faced any major challenges along the way?"
“The biggest hurdle in a sense is we have this vision, and we know what the world will look like in five to ten years from now, but what is the quickest and most effective way of making that a reality?” de Vries explained.
De Vries added that they have approached it as more of a philosophical problem. “There is something missing in the general understanding of what we have and what AI can be, and we want to rectify that.”
Limbic is a deep tech company and therefore there is a lot of development that needs to happen. Harper said: “We can’t take off-the-shelf algorithms and put it together to form a new product, we had to create these algorithms, which meant we had to convince the people who had taken a bet on us and given us money, that this is worth something now, and that it is worth the time it will take to create it. It is difficult to do that, but we have been very fortunate with our backers, who have helped us in building our vision.”
It’s a stretch to say Limbic are the only tech company working in mental health, but Harper agreed that physical health issues get far more attention than mental health issues. He said: “Half of that is probably awareness, and the other side could be the challenge. It’s quite difficult to bring AI to a space that’s quite nebulous like mental health, unlike cancer diagnostics where we can see AI being used every day. It’s far cloudier for us and that is a challenge, but it’s one we take on with excitement.”
"What is next?"
Limbic is currently a company of six but looking to grow, and fill a few more positions including a deep learning researcher and a business development lead, before its next round of funding.
Harper added: “I began the interview talking about our grand vision of bringing emotional intelligence to AI, which remains our future plan too, that is about really modelling human psychology and incorporating that into AI today. However, over the next five years we are going to have our hands full taking on the first sector we are focusing on which is mental health.
“I would say in five years’ time it would be amazing if more often than not Limbic was involved in treatment of mental illness, bringing what we believe is much needed quantifiability to this space.”
This means Limbic would allow patients to take ownership of their own health outcomes and clinicians are able to effectively measure their own progress, and account for everything they are doing, instead of the trial and error approach.