In the wake of the Dayton and El Paso shootings, President Donald Trump has been quick to blame mental illness as the culprit. There is no evidence that either of these shooters have mental illness, nor that mental illness is to blame for their violent outbursts. Research also suggests people with mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators. But none of this has stopped the president, nor has it stopped the Suzanne Wright Foundation, which has used Trump’s assumption as the basis for a new proposal to control gun violence. Their plan? Start a new government agency called HARPA, the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, modeled on the military technology agency DARPA (same acronym, but the D stands for Defense), and implement what they’ve called the SAFEHOME proposal.
The Suzanne Wright Foundation did not immediately respond to our request for a copy of the proposal, but according to reporting from the Washington Post, SAFEHOME—the acronym for Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes—would develop “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence” using multiple sources, including “real-time data analytics” and technologies like phones, Apple Watches, Fitbits, and smart speakers like the Amazon Echo and Google Home. In other words: SAFEHOME would use your digital devices to keep tabs on you and determine whether you might become violent. The Suzanne Wright Foundation thinks this will work because “advanced analytical tools based on artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly improving,” by their measure, enough so that they think they ought to be let loose on your data.
If only it were so easy. Surely, artificial intelligence and machine learning are rapidly improving. But it’s still a dangerous game to apply such tools to predict something as complex and context-dependent as violent behavior. Consider, again, that the link between mental illness and violence is tenuous; there’s no evidence that people with mental illness are more likely to commit a violent crime. And the link between patterns in a person’s device data and their mental state is even less understood.
Mental health researchers have generally cringed at SAFEHOME’s premise because even in their carefully designed research studies, they’ve discovered it’s incredibly difficult to draw any conclusions from a person’s digital data. “Context is critical,” says Emily Mower Provost, an associate professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan. Along with Melvin McInnis, a University of Michigan professor studying bipolar disorder and depression, Provost has analyzed speech in phone calls made by participants with bipolar disorder. Some of the phone call in their sample were the participants’ check-ins with clinicians, while others were their personal calls.
Provost and McInnis were able to predict participants’ moods and symptoms from recordings of their calls with clinicians, but that predictive ability was “greatly reduced” from analyzing their personal calls. “We realized this is because a person’s communication patterns change based on context,” says Provost. Consider your last few calls: how you might speak to a clinician asking how you’re doing emotionally might feel (and sound) different from how you feel and sound while calling your mom, your high school best friend, or a colleague. There’s some research that suggests that people talk in a higher pitch around people they perceive as higher status, like a job interviewer—not necessarily relevant to predicting violence, but indicative of how much social circumstance might affect how we present ourselves.
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