AI is Now Aiding in Suicide Prevention with New Pilot

The use of social media can often mask how individuals are truly feeling, but one Canadian company wants to use technology to check up on those most at-risk.

Ottawa’s Advanced Symbolics has unveiled plans to work with the government of Canada that will see the market research company use AI to monitor social media trends in an effort to forecast spikes in suicide rates. A contract with the government will be finalized next month, and the pilot will run for three months, finishing before June 30.

The goal is to identify areas where the risk of suicide may be increased due to a number of circumstances. This might include university campuses, select communities in Northern Canada, or even an area like Cape Breton that was rocked by three teen suicides last year. This kind of monitoring could offer a two- or three-month warning before a spike occurs.

The government’s role will be to work with Advanced Symbolics to define “suicide-related behaviour,” according to a document posted to Public Works. This behaviour will be split into three groups: ideation (thoughts); behaviours (suicide attempts, self-harm, suicide); and communications (threats, plans).

From there, Advanced Symbolics will build a classifier in order to implement the above definitions then look to conduct research into Canadian social media accounts in an attempt to find patterns and highlight areas of increased risk. After the pilot period, the government will determine if ongoing suicide surveillance is necessary.

Advanced Symbolics prides itself on being a market research company that strays away from typical phone polls and instead relies on social media accounts to predict massive events. The company describes itself as the only organization that accurately predicted Brexit, the 2016 U.S. election, and the 2015 Canadian election.

In order to accurately represent Canada, Advanced Symbolics will analyze over 160,000 public social media accounts. The company looks for trends and will not assess individual accounts, stressing the importance of privacy. The hope is for Advanced Symbolics to create a monthly report “summarizing the magnitude of discussion around suicide by age group and gender (e.g. 14-18-year-old males), changes in patterns and available risk and protective factors,” according to the Public Works document.

“It’d be a bit freaky if we built something that monitors what everyone is saying and then the government contacts you and said, ‘Hi, our computer AI has said we think you’re likely to kill yourself’,” Advanced Symbolics’ chief scientist Kenton White told the CBC.

If Advanced Symbolics can accurately assess when a community or area is at risk, the government or other organizations can mobilize mental health resources and other initiatives before it becomes a crisis, instead of after.

This contract by the Canadian government is the latest technology-led endeavour that will look to monitor and build on mental health initiatives. The economic burden of mental illness in Canada is an estimated $51 billion per year according to CAMH, while companies like Greenspace and Manulife look to pilot new ways to handle mental health issues.

Facebook also recently unveiled their own AI to detect suicidal posts before they have been reported. The social media giant also increased resources available to those who may be at risk or know someone who is in need of help.