The Computer That’s Infected With Schizophrenia

“All schizophrenia patients are mad, and none are sane. Their behaviour is incomprehensible.” —Kingsley Amis, Stanley and the Women

In A Nutshell

In an attempt to link schizophrenia with the excessive production of dopamine, researchers built a computerized neural network that would mimic the reaction of a brain overloaded with the substance. The network, called DISCERN, became quickly unstable, communicating with delusional stories and disjointed, nonsensical statements. It even answered one question by claiming credit for a terrorist bombing.

The Whole Bushel

Although true “artificial intelligence” might be forever out of reach, there is no denying that the technology is pretty close. When IBM’s Watson took on Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter, it beat the humans soundly. Science fiction has been quick to flag the potential dangers of an artificially intelligent system, perhaps best represented by HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey. A joint project by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and Yale University has revealed just how dangerous computers could potentially be.

Wishing to better understand schizophrenia, the group built a computerized “neural network” which would mimic an overabundance of the neuroendocrine transmitter dopamine in the human brain. Their hypothesis was that excessive dopamine sends the brain into a kind of hyperdrive of overthinking that prevents people from having succinct, cogent thoughts that allow them to function. The schizophrenic mind, flooded with dopamine, creates false associations and assaults the brain with so much information at once that it is impossible to filter out what is important.

The researchers named their network DISCERN and began their experiments by programming the system to understand language the way a human does—not as bits of data to be stored, but as information that needs to be connected and cross-referenced. They fed DISCERN a series of stories until it essentially learned to “understand” them. Then, to simulate a human brain besieged by dopamine, they jacked up the computer’s learning rate.

DISCERN responded by acting schizophrenic, creating its own distorted set of connections. It responded to inquiries with jumbled, nonsensical strings of words and put itself in the midst of bizarre, deranged situations drawn from the stories it had digested, much like a person suffering from schizoid delusions distorts elements from real life into their own twisted narrative. In one instance, the computer claimed responsibility for a terrorist bombing.

These are certainly intriguing results, but they are far from absolutely proving the link between high dopamine production and schizophrenia. There are other substances, such as glutamic amino acid, which have also been tied to the mental illness. Glutamate is produced in excess when people take recreational drugs such as PCP (which has been linked to innumerable cases of temporary psychosis). If we can take anything away from the DISCERN experiments, it is that technology must be carefully monitored lest control slip out of our hands.

Show Me The Proof

US National Library of Medicine: Using computational patients to evaluate illness mechanisms in schizophrenia
University of Texas at Austin: Scientists Afflict Computers with Schizophrenia to Better Understand the Human Brain
NY Times: Daring to Think Differently About Schizophrenia