China launches artificial intelligence to prevent its young people from committing suicide

Not having enough youth is already a demographic time bomb for China socially, politically and economically. And, suicides are making the problem worse.

China launches artificial intelligence to prevent its young people from committing suicide
Representative image

Depending on your opinions, this could either be the most Orwellian, oppressive thing yet or it could be a symbol of technological advance making humans safer. China has launched an artificial intelligence (AI) system that will identify people with suicidal thoughts and send them a message on social media advising them to seek help.

The AI was developed by researchers at the Institute of Psychology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It scans social media posts and comments on social media platforms to identify potentially suicidal users. It has already sent intervention messages to close to 20,000 such users since July 2017, China's government-run newspapers have reported.

The reports also said 4000 of these apparently suicidal individuals had responded to the message on Weibo, China's Twitter clone. They also claimed that 8000 had responded by accessing online counselling tools.

Suicide is a serious concern in China. It has even been announced as a priority of the Chinese government. And here is why. A report in 2017 from China's Ministry of Health showed that suicide is the leading cause of death among the country's youth.

About 26 percent of the deaths in the 15 to 34 age group were suicides. A study also found that more than 20 percent of high school students had at some point made concrete plans to commit suicide. The report said the suicides are social pressures, family issues and emotional uncertainty.

That young people are killing themselves is not just a social problem. For China, it is also a major economic problem. The nominally-communist country is faced with a shrinking labour force thanks to an ageing population. The percentage of the elderly in the total population is rising every year. Moves like the One Child Policy have also led to a situation that fewer young people have been available to enter the workforce to replace those who are retiring.

This seemingly unstoppable demographic nightmare is exactly why China, any which way no beacon of personal liberty, is willing to go even further in its bids to keep whatever young people it has alive.

The AI was developed over two years by Zhu Tingshao, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It uses language analysis to identify suicidal tendencies. But Zhu says it is the human factor that is more problematic when it comes to suicide prevention. "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," he said.

"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," Zhu told Chinese government news agency Xinhua.