Tree Hole: AI Chatbot That Can Help Prevent Suicide
Wed, April 21, 2021

Tree Hole: AI Chatbot That Can Help Prevent Suicide

Chatbots are not only effective in businesses but also to people. They can converse and learn about them / Photo by: Song_about_summer via Shutterstock

 

Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence are dramatically changing businesses. There is a wide range of chatbot building platforms that are available for various enterprises including retail, e-commerce, banking, leisure, travel, healthcare, and others. They can dig through large amounts of data to understand what the customers need, whether it is a recommendation for a new product or to troubleshoot a problem.

Chatbots Magazine, the most widely read and respected source for information about chatbots, reported that 80% of enterprises will use chatbots by 2020. By 2022, banks can automate up to 90% of their customer interaction using this AI tool. A report showed that 65.1% of companies using chatbot technology are engaged in web software while 58% that use chatbot technology are focused on B2B. 

These AI tools are also being widely used in the US. According to Drift.com, a conversational marketing and sales technology company, 27% of their American clients are ready to purchase basic goods through a chatbot while 13% have at least once bought expensive items using chatbots. A survey conducted by Spiceworks, a professional network for the information technology industry, reported that 40% of large companies are planning to implement one or more AI-based chatbots over corporate mobile devices in 2019.

Chatbots are not only effective in businesses but also to people. They can converse and learn about them. Chatbots have become more advanced that they can help in preventing suicides that have affected millions of people across the world. Following a string of suicides and the increasing awareness of the mental health crisis, AI is being deployed once again for an important goal: save lives. 

How AI Can Help Prevent Suicides

Suicide has been an increasing public health concern across the world. An analysis presented by the Public Health Agency of Canada showed that there are 4,000 lives claimed by suicide in Canada alone. This is equivalent to 10 lives per day. For every one of these suicide deaths, there are five people hospitalized due to self-injury, 7 to 10 people affected by each tragedy, and 25 to 30 suicide attempts. 

One of the ways AI has been used to address this public health concern is through the Crisis Text Line, a text messaging-based crisis counseling hotline. Since it was launched in August 2013, the tool has processed over 100 million text messages. According to Vox, an American news and opinion website owned by Vox Media, data scientists are using machine learning, a type of AI, to analyze the words and emojis that can signify if a person is at higher risk of suicide ideation or self-harm. 

In 2017, Facebook launched a project that aims to prevent suicide with AI. The platform is using an algorithm to detect signs of potential self-harm to proactively address the issue. This works by scanning nearly every post on the platform, which will be passed along to law enforcement for wellness checks. Facebook also automatically flags posts with expressions of suicidal thoughts for the company’s human reviewers to analyze. Dan Muriello, a software engineer on Facebook’s compassion team, said: “We feel like it’s very important to get people to help as quickly as we possibly can and to get as many people to help as we can.”

Suicide has been an increasing public health concern across the world. An analysis presented by the Public Health Agency of Canada showed that there are 4,000 lives claimed by suicide in Canada alone / Photo by: Santi S via Shutterstock

 

Introducing Tree Hole

Many of us turn to social media to express our feelings because it sometimes feels like a safe space for us. This is why a lot of social media platforms are developing ways to reach out to people who may be in a bad mental health state, helping them turn away from suicidal thoughts. And this is what Tree Hole aims for. 

Tree Hole is the brainchild of Huang Zhisheng, a senior artificial intelligence researcher at the Vrije University of Amsterdam. It’s an AI chatbot that tracks Chinese social media platform Weibo and alerts a group of nearly 600 psychology scholars, consultants, and volunteers when it finds posts concerning suicide. Since it was launched in July 2018, the team has prevented more than 1,000 suicides. 

The chatbot has flagged cases such as a person who live-streamed herself swallowing 60 sleeping pills on her social media feed and a woman who wrote, “Anyone wants to jump in the river with me?” Both were rescued, fortunately, through notification of police and/or family members.

According to the South China Morning Post, a Hong Kong English-language newspaper founded in 1903, the bot was named because it scans so-called tree hole posts on Weibo, where people share and comment on emotional stories. It automatically scans the social media platform every four hours, pulling up posts containing words and phrases like “end of the world,” “release from life,” and “death.” It also applies semantic analysis programming with a graph of suicide notions and concepts so it can understand that “live” and “not want to” in one sentence may indicate suicidal tendencies.

Now in its 6th generation, the accuracy of Tree Hole has reached 82%. Since the AI chatbot only applies to Weibo, which is mostly used by mainland Chinese, a lot of researchers from universities across the world have invited Huang to collaborate and expand it beyond China.

The work at Tree Hole is demanding and requires dedication, which is why Huang is currently developing a conversational bot that aims to chat with people in the same way as a human psychologist. However, Li Dai, founder and chief executive of WonderLab, stated that online conversations are not enough and not as effective as a face-to-face consultation. 

“Words and voice do convey some information about the person, but their movements and expressions do a better and faster job,” she said.

Nonetheless, Tree Hole and other AI tools are a great help and a huge step forward in preventing suicide. It can address the increasing mental health crisis that has made people suffer in quiet for so long.