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Virtual Reality and AI to Help Drug Addicts

Addiction to drugs is one of the biggest problems facing the civilised world today. With newer and more potent drugs arriving in the market almost regularly, authorities are always on the lookout for new ways to reduce addiction rates. Now, a Beijing-based start-up, named WonderLab, has developed an impressive technology combining the potential of VR with artificial intelligence to help addicts.

How does the technology work?

The researchers developed a VR simulation of a car backseat. Users interact with a virtual drug user who entices them to join in for a drag of meth. With the help of this simulation, scientists can study the likelihood of an addict participating in drug use. The machine constantly measures the electrical conductance, brainwaves and pulse of the subject to determine their chances of relapse.

The artificial intelligence system compares over 10,000 patterns that it received from known addiction cases to check whether the same markers are present in a subject. Essentially, a higher presence of markers indicates a greater drug-craving effect on the person. WonderLab is working with drug rehabilitation centres across 10 Chinese municipalities and provinces including Yunnan, Chongqing, Sichuan, Yunnan, Beijing and Shandong.

(VR) experience designed to determine how prone the participant is to drug use. Photo: SCMP/Tom Wang

Currently, the company uses the device to understand the effectiveness of rehabilitation for different patients. Li Dai, the founder of WonderLab, compares the technology to a polygraph for drug addicts. Previously, rehabilitation centres used questionnaires to determine whether an individual was rehabilitated. However, Li claims the previous method was subjective and often resulted in inaccurate conclusions.

With this AI-assisted VR simulation, researchers can track the brain’s reaction to drug abuse situations. These results are then compared to previous results from addicts who have abstained from using drugs and people who never developed an addiction.

The tricky part of reading brain signals

The human brain is comprised of 86 billion neurons, each relaying signals to the different parts of the body. Tracking the signal from so many neurons is impossible for human beings. Li says that the traditional method of study only showed bipolar comparisons, either with or without a drug abuse trigger.

Li and his team can train the artificial intelligence system to perform this study of the brain signals, eliminating irrelevant data during the process. The results are more accurate when more variables are added to the mix. At present, the tech can predict drug addiction with 90% accuracy. A similar AI model correctly detects depression  nine times out of ten.

China’s drug problems are much limited in scope when compared to countries such as the UK and the US. In America, around 30.5 million individuals aged 12 or above use illegal drugs. In China, that number is just 2.4 million, representing only 0.2% of the total population. Therefore, WonderLab’s technology is relevant throughout the world, allowing a deeper understanding of relapse into drug use.

Li claims his ultimate goal for the project remains better understanding and treatment of depression, Alzheimer’s and schizophrenia. It can be interesting to see where the technology goes in the future and whether it succeeds in unlocking the secrets of the human mind.

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