China is using AI technology, including pattern recognition, to identify users who express suicidal thoughts on microblog site Weibo in order to to prevent suicide attempts.
Zhu Tingshao, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, conducted a two-year study of online suicidal ideation and set up an AI account to help those who are suffering.
"Suicide hotlines and intervention centers are the most prevalent methods for suicide prevention. Yet only 20 percent of people with suicidal inclinations are willing to seek help. Therefore, web-based research is significant," said Zhu.
According to a paper published last December in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, in 2016, Zhu's team recruited 4,222 microbloggers who had expressed suicidal thoughts in a bid to find language patterns the AI could learn from.
"We used AI technology such as natural language processing and deep learning to collect language patterns from suicidal users. Then our AI account sent direct messages to them online, offering comfort and advice while protecting their privacy," Zhu said.
Many people contemplating suicide share their worries online rather than telling a specialist.
Zhu said his account is quite useful in identifying people who express suicidal thoughts online.
The account has reached more than 20,000 users with suicidal thoughts and has provided online counseling since July 2016.
"We need to track the troubled souls first and detect how urgent their psychological situation is. For those who have strong tendencies, we tell them what their problems might be and send them a list of hotlines and professional intervention centers," said Zhu.
Such AI technology has proved efficacious. Scientists often receive replies thanking them for help during tough times.
Zhu said his team has upgraded the AI tool four times and will open it to more people in the future.
"Many don't know they have psychological problems, and some online psychological quizzes are often misleading. We hope this AI tool can help more Weibo users, not just suicidal ones," said Zhu.