The AI Bot Preventing Suicides in China

Tree Hole finds suicidal messages on Weibo and alerts a team of volunteer psychologists, consultants and psychological scholars.

05.12.2019 | by Reve Fisher
Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya on Unsplash
Photo by Serhat Beyazkaya on Unsplash

Suicide is the second leading cause of death in people aged 15 to 29. According to the World Health Organisation, about 800,000 individuals commit suicide every year, with many more people attempting suicide.

In China, an AI bot is looking to reduce that figure.

Founded in 2018, the Tree Hole bot finds potential suicidal intentions posted on social media network Weibo and connects the posters to volunteer psychologists, consultants and psychological scholars. In China, a “tree hole”—inspired by an Irish story about a man who told his secrets to a tree—is where people post secrets online for others to read.

The Tree Hole bot scans Weibo every four hours, searching for posts with words and phrases that may indicate a desire to commit suicide, such as “death,” “release from life” or “end of the world,” as reported by the South China Morning Post. The bot draws on a knowledge graph of suicide notions and concepts and utilises semantic analysis programming, helping it connect phrases that might demonstrate a suicidal tendency such as “not want to” and “live” in one sentence.

The bot then ranks the posts from one to 10. If the ranking is below six, which means that only negative words were detected in the post, the volunteers generally do not intervene. A ranking of nine means that a suicide attempt will be made shortly, and a 10 means it is likely to be already in progress. Volunteers will then either try to call the police directly or contact the person’s relatives or friends.

Now it its sixth iteration, Tree Hot finds suicidal tendencies with 82 percent accuracy.

“Every week, we can save around 10 people,” Dr Huang Zhisheng, creator of the program and a senior artificial intelligence researcher at Vrije University of Amsterdam, told the BBC. “If you hesitate for a second, a lot of life will be lost.”

In the past 18 months, the programme’s 600 volunteers have saved over 700 lives.

Peng Ling, a volunteer from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, participated in Tree Bot’s first operation in April 2018. A 22-year-old student in northern China’s Shandong province wrote that she planned to kill herself two days later. Along with a group of other volunteers, Peng found a phone number for one of the student’s friends in an earlier Weibo post and passed the information to her university,

“I tried to message her before sleep and told her that I could pick her up,” Peng recalled. “She added me as a friend on WeChat and gradually calmed down. Since then, I have kept check on her to see if she is eating. We also buy her a bunch of flowers through the internet once a week.”

Although Tree Hole is currently only used on Weibo, international researchers have invited Huang to collaborate and expand the bot outside China.

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