As President Donald Trump pays lip service to mental health instead of actually addressing America’s abysmal gun laws, a new report indicates the administration has reacted positively to a proposal to create a new federal agency tasked with identifying signs of mental illness using artificial intelligence and a suite of smart home appliances to gather data.
The chillingly Big Brother-esque initiative, first reported in the Washington Post on Thursday, is officially known as HARPA, the Health Advanced Research Projects Agency, and would be modeled after government’s existing DARPA research clearinghouse.
Following the mass shootings in both El Paso, TX, and Dayton, OH, earlier this month, representatives from the Susan Wright Foundation—who originally pushed for the creation of HARPA as a means to address pancreatic cancer research—reportedly approached the White House about a new project called the “Safe Home” initiative—an acronym standing for “Stopping Aberrant Fatal Events by Helping Overcome Mental Extremes”—which could cost anywhere between $40-60 million dollars over four years, the Post reported.
According to a copy of the proposal obtained by the Post, the Safe Home project would use “breakthrough technologies with high specificity and sensitivity for early diagnosis of neuropsychiatric violence,” noting that “a multi-modality solution, along with real-time data analytics, is needed to achieve such an accurate diagnosis.”
So what would that actually look like? The project proposal specifically lists a number of common smart devices like Apple Watches, Amazon Echos and other similar technologies through which volunteers—its backers stress that part—would opt in to allow data collection. That data would then be analyzed by HARPA AI to assess and identify warning signs of mental illness that could indicate “someone headed toward a violent explosive act,” project advisor Dr. Geoffrey Ling told the Post.
While mental health research is, in and of itself, a worthy and important endeavor, the prospect of a computer culling people’s smart home data in the pursuit of red-flagging potential mass shooters feels uniquely dystopian, particularly given America’s long, dark history of domestic surveillance. It’s a criticism advocates seem keenly aware of.
“Privacy must be safeguarded,” people “familiar with the project” told the Post. “Profiling must be avoided. Data protection capabilities will be the cornerstone of this effort.”
Ling agreed, but suggested “Everybody would be a volunteer.” He also told the paper: “We’re not inventing new science here. We’re analyzing it so we can develop new approaches.”
“This is going to have to be done using scientific rigor,” he added.
Sources briefed on the president’s thinking told the Post that Trump has reacted “very positively” to the broad prospect of adding HARPA to the official federal roster.