New freelance writings: AI in psychiatry, galactic archaeology, and Mars exploration

Here’s a few stories I’ve recently written and published in The Guardian, Knowable magazine, and Carnegie magazine. Thanks as usual to my excellent editors! I’m only posting brief excerpts here, so if you’re interested, please check out the whole thing using the links below.

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The computer will see you now: is your therapy session about to be automated?

Experts say AI is set to grow rapidly in psychiatry and therapy, allowing doctors to spot mental illness earlier and improve care. But are the technologies effective – and ethical?

In just a few years, your visit to the psychiatrist’s office could look very different – at least according to Daniel Barron. Your doctor could benefit by having computers analyze recorded interactions with you, including subtle changes in your behavior and in the way you talk.

“I think, without question, having access to quantitative data about our conversations, about facial expressions and intonations, would provide another dimension to the clinical interaction that’s not detected right now,” said Barron, a psychiatrist based in Seattle and author of the new book Reading Our Minds: The Rise of Big Data Psychiatry.

Barron and other doctors believe that the use of artificial intelligence (AI) will grow rapidly in psychiatry and therapy, including facial recognition and text analysis software, which will supplement clinicians’ efforts to spot mental illnesses earlier and improve treatments for patients. But the technologies first need to be shown to be effective, and some experts are wary of bias and other ethical issues as well.

While telemedicine and digital tools have become increasingly common over the past few years, “I think Covid has certainly super-charged and accelerated interest in it,” said John Torous, director of the digital psychiatry division at Beth Israel Deaconess medical center in Boston…

[Read the entire story in The Guardian, published on 4 June.]

A galactic archaeologist digs into the Milky Way’s history

Astrophysicists now have the data and models to uncover subtle imprints from our galaxy’s past.

In the night sky, the band of light from the Milky Way makes our galaxy look like a crowded streak of stars and gas clouds. But today, scientists know its shape and structure in detail: the spiral arms wrapping around the galaxy’s center, its central bulge packed with stars and a gargantuan black hole, and its fainter, fluffy halo of stars farther out, as if our galaxy were cocooned within a stellar cotton ball. They also know that an even more diffuse cloud of dark matter extends farther out still, revealed by the motions of the stars.I

How did the Milky Way come to look this way?

Even just a decade ago, scientists knew the motions of, and the distance to, only a small number of stars in our galactic neighborhood, and so had only a partial picture of the Milky Way’s evolving structure. But the latest telescopes, including the European Space Agency’s Gaia that launched in 2013, have dramatically opened up our view to most of the galaxy. Their data reveal faraway clumps and streams of stars that, like fossils, offer hints about the galaxy’s complex history…

[Read the entire story in Knowable magazine, published on 10 June.]

Perseverance and the Ongoing Search for Life on Mars

Astronomers are deploying the plucky rover and its helicopter sidekick to explore new parts of the red planet and learn whether alien organisms once lived there.

On February 18, scientists and space fans alike had their eyes glued to their screens, nervously and excitedly watching a momentous landing. NASA’s Perseverance rover, a science lab the size of a small car, hurtled toward the surface of Mars at 12,500 miles per hour. Even after firing thrusters and parachuting, the rover needed to further slam the brakes, accomplished by a “sky crane” that gently lowered it with a tether. After seven eventful minutes, at 3:55 p.m. Eastern time, a sufficiently slowed-down rover finally set its wheels down on the ruddy Martian soil.

Carnegie Science Center hosted a socially distanced landing party with some 40 visitors, including kids dressed up in flight suits, and hundreds more spectators following along virtually. “I remember the moment that we landed because everyone started jumping up and down and cheering,” says Mike Hennessy, Science Center educator and manager of its Buhl Planetarium.

After the successful landing, Perseverance —or Percy, as it’s sometimes called—sat for a couple of weeks in the middle of Jezero Crater, readying for its missions. It’s thought to be the site of an arid, ancient delta, where liquid water once flowed more than 3 billion years ago. NASA scientists suspect that if fossilized microbes exist on Mars, they could be trapped in clay mineral deposits along the crater’s dried-up lake bottom, shorelines, and river delta…

[Read the entire story in Carnegie magazine, published in June.]

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