The idea of depressed robots sounds absurd, right? According to experts, however, it is actually the natural reaction of AI to being unable to adapt to sudden changes in its environment. Interestingly, studies have time and time again shown that this inability to adapt could also be one of the triggers for depression and anxiety in humans. This means that the treatments, so to speak, used by scientists to address AI depression could very well also serve as the basis not only for promoting better mental health but also for developing more effective mental health treatments for humans.

It’s all about plasticity

The ability of AI to adapt to changes in its environment is ultimately determined by its learning rate. Simply put, this dictates how flexible the system is when it comes to obtaining and processing new information and then making the necessary adjustments to its algorithms. According to a study conducted by neuroscientist Zachary Mainen and his team, in humans, this learning rate relies heavily on the body’s serotonin system. Originally thought to simply boost happiness, serotonin, as it turns out, also helps the brain more easily rewire itself and adapt to changes in its environment. This is probably why supplementation with serotonin boosters and mood enhancers work so well in treating both depression and anxiety.

Everything in moderation

Before you load up on plasticity-boosting substances, however, keep in mind that it is actually possible to overdose on them. Getting too much serotonin, for instance, can cause serotonin syndrome. Its symptoms include restlessness, confusion, increased blood pressure and even muscular stiffness. Left untreated, the condition could be fatal.

Interestingly, too much plasticity can also cause problems with AI. According to Zainen, a robot with too high a learning rate would simply overwrite old information and be unable to actually accumulate knowledge. One with too much flexibility, on the other hand, would not be able to focus on a single objective and simply jump from one encounter to the next.

Only the first step

Zainen and his team believe that while promising, their study is just the first step in better understanding mental health issues like depression and anxiety disorders. It would take a more autonomous general AI, instead of today’s highly specialised ones, for scientists to make more accurate comparisons between robot and human brains. In any case, this study, without a doubt, is a step in the right direction.

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