Chinese AI Prevents Suicide

Katie Keovongphet, Reporter

Approximately 800,000 people worldwide commit suicide every year, causing the World Health Organization to encourage governments worldwide to take preventative action. In China, Huang Zhisheng, a professor at Vrije University of Amsterdam, created a nonprofit artificial intelligence (AI) bot that helps prevent suicide through Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform.

In the United States, programs similar to this are typically government-controlled. It’s rare for normal citizens to be a member of an organization like the one created by Zhisheng or to be notified to help people that are struggling online. Ultimately, the differences in the American and Chinese government plays a large role in how these organizations are operated.

“With Chinese culture, the government would be overseeing the nonprofit,” technology applications teacher Keri Lejeune said. “I think that if it had less government control, then it would fit [into American culture] nicely. It would work well if they could actually hone in and help identify people who need help.”

The AI bot, Tree Hole, was named after an old Chinese folktale. It became particularly popular from movies such as “In the Mood for Love”. It’s said that people would find tree holes in ancient times, whisper their secrets into them, and seal the hole with leaves or mud to keep their secrets there forever.

“I think it would need to be altered for [our] culture,” technology applications teacher Trina Cunningham said. “[The AI] would have to be updated frequently, because the speech that young people use changes. There’s always terms that come about over the generations to represent the changes in society and the speech and terminology that we use.”

The Tree Hole bot scans Weibo for any “tree holes”, posts that contain words like “death” or “end of the world.” The bot flags these posts and notifies a group of approximately 600 volunteers, psychiatrists and psychological scholars who rate the urgency of a post.

“There are a lot of suicides now, especially among young people,” Cunningham said. “They have to have a program. It couldn’t be monitored just by individuals reading every post. It has to be done electronically.”

The nonprofit bot has saved more than 700 lives in 18 months, but has also raised privacy concerns with the public. Several citizens questioned the organization’s involvement in the personal lives of strangers, especially if the police were notified about the issue.

“I think once you put something out there in the public domain that you’re kind of giving up your right to privacy. If you don’t want people to see it, don’t post it online. It’s the same way with people getting their intellectual property stolen,” Cunningham said. “People take songs, pictures, videos and anything off the Internet. People think that it’s free reign. That information is copyrighted and, legally, people should not be taking it and using it as their own.”

Lejeune believes that the government should bring mental, physical and emotional health up more, particularly for the benefit of students. She feels that society should focus on seeking the causes of suicide attempts and unhappiness such as environmental situations, financial issues or the stress placed on students to be successful.

“I think that the problem has less to do with identifying those people and more to do with actually making sure people have a safer environment and that we are looking out for mental health, physical health and [the] well being of everybody rather than pushing so hard to a perceived success, such as your class rank [or] the AP classes you take,” Lejuene said.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2015 study, 92 percent of teens go online daily. With the dominance of social media in this generation, Lejeune urges students to focus more on their happiness. She feels it’s important to keep in mind that everyone goes through rough times too.

“I feel like social media is hard, because people only put their happy stuff out there. That makes [others] think that everybody’s life is beautiful and that nobody has problems,” Lejuene said. “I see a lot of students that are so stressed about life. They seek a way to find happiness. What is happiness? What makes you really happy?”