One of the most often-voiced criticisms of Silicon Valley in recent years, to paraphrase billionaire investor Peter Thiel, is that it promised a revolution and delivered… apps that let you get your dinner delivered. The California Sunday Magazine has an article that serves as an unexpected rejoinder. It examines apps that use artificial intelligence to tackle serious problems such as eating disorders. Entitled “The Mental Health Hack,” it notes that “more than 300 mental health startups have launched in the past two years alone, and venture capital investment has grown dramatically.”
The story-telling, which focuses on an app that attempts to help with eating disorders and one of the key people behind it, is excellent. And the article lays out what seems like solid evidence that some of these apps actually work. There are surprising nuggets along the way. For example, the article mentions an artificial intelligence program, featuring a videogame-like character named Ellie, that was used to interview 24 Colorado National Guard servicemen “before and after they were deployed to Afghanistan as part of a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency–funded study to better diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder…. When soldiers talked to Ellie, they revealed more symptoms of PTSD than in their standard post-deployment health surveys.” Apparently, the soldiers were more comfortable sharing intimate details with an electronic apparition than with a human being. If artificial intelligence could be used to help people with PTSD or eating disorders, that would turn out to be the best sort of rebuttal to the criticisms leveled against Silicon Valley.
Can Software Find Serial Killers?
Speaking of articles that look at software being used for a social good, BloombergBusinessWeek has a feature called “Serial Killers Should Fear This Algorithm” (thanks to my colleague Brian O’Keefe, for recommending it). It focuses on a a data-oriented former news reporter named Thomas Hargrove who poses the following question: “‘Do you suppose it’s possible to teach a computer how to spot serial killers?’”
The article reports that more than one-third of murders in the U.S. never lead even to an arrest—the rate is getting worse, not better—and you won’t soon forget the opening anecdote: Hargrove uses a database he personally assembled to discern that there was a serial killer loose in Gary, Indiana, and that as many as 14 women may have been slain by the killer. The police ignored Hargrove’s entreaties, and another half-dozen people died, it seems, before they launched an investigation and made an arrest. The article suggests that other cities may have similar murderers.
One can’t help wondering why it took a retired reporter with a tiny non-profit—rather than a law enforcement agency—to centralize national data for 638,454 homicides from 1980 through 2014, including 23,219 cases that hadn’t been reported to the FBI. Fortunately, Hargrove has made the data freely available to all, though if the article is to be believed, many police departments do not seem terribly interested.
A Short-Seller And His Hens
Bloomberg Markets’ profile of short-seller Marc Cohodes is stellar. I think of short-sellers as akin to investigative journalists: Their personalities can be acerbic verging on belligerent, but boy can you learn from them. Cohodes very much fits that bill in “The World According To A Free-Range Shortseller With Nothing Left To Lose.” The reporting is outstanding, as is the writing and even the photography, which is filled with black-and-white images of Cohodes clutching hens at his chicken farm. If you want a sophisticated understanding of the vagaries of investing—being right about your thesis isn’t always enough—you’ll want to read the description here of how Cohodes’ business collapsed after the financial crisis of 2008, even though he was conclusions about companies proved to be correct. Now he’s back, cantankerous as ever, and a lot of fun to read about.
Bonus: What If You Never Forgot Anything?
Most of us experience a decline in memory as we age. But what if, every time somebody mentioned a date in your lifetime, your middle-aged brain immediately spit out the details of what you did, or what happened, on that day? That real-life condition affects about 60 known people on the planet and they’re the subject of a fascinating, at times elegiac, exploration of memory in the Guardian. Hint: It may give you an appreciation for the value of keeping a diary.