A 21-year-old student, Li Fan, attempted suicide after sending a brief message on Weibo – a Chinese Twitter-like platform right after Valentine’s Day.
“I can’t take it anymore. I’m going to give up,” he penned. Shortly after, he went unconscious. He owed money, had a disagreement with his mother and was going through a severe depression.
Some 5,000 miles away from his university in Nanjing, his message was noticed by a program running on a computer in Amsterdam. It highlighted the message, stimulating volunteers from different parts of China into action. When they were unable to move Mr. Li from afar, they conveyed their concerns to local police, which ultimately saved him. It might sound amazing, but this was only one of many such success for the Tree Hole Rescue team.
The creativity’s founder is Huang Zhisheng (pictured above), a high-ranking artificial intelligence (AI) researcher at the Free University Amsterdam. In the last 18 months, his program has been utilized by 600 volunteers across China, who, in turn, say they have saved approximately 700 people. “If you delay for a second, a lot of life will be lost,” said Mr Huang. “Each week, we can rescue around ten people.”
The first rescue action was on 29 April 2018. A 22-year-old university student, Tao Yue, in China’s Shandong province, penned on Weibo that she planned to kill herself within two days. Peng Ling, a helper from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and several others responded. Ms. Peng said they had found a phone number for one of the student’s friends through an earlier post and passed the information to the university. “I tried to message her before sleep and told her that I could pick her up,” she said. “She accepted me as a friend on [Chinese app] WeChat and slowly calmed down. From that day on, I have kept an eye on her to see if she is eating. Once a week, we also buy her a bunch of flowers through the internet.”
After this achievement, the team saved a woman who had tried to kill herself after being sexually abused and saved a man who had tried to jump off a bridge. “Rescues need both experience and luck,” said Li Hong, a Beijing psychologist who has been engaged for about a year.
Psychologist Li Hong says she has helped save about 30 people. She remembered how she and her colleagues had toured eight hotels in Chengdu, only to locate a suicidal woman they had known had reserved a room in the city. “All the administrators said they didn’t know the woman,” Ms Li said. “But one of them was reluctant for a moment. We supposed it must be that hotel – and it was.”
So how does the system function?
The Java-based program checks several “tree holes” on Weibo and evaluates the messages posted there. A “tree hole” is the Chinese name for places on the net where people post secrets for others to read. The name is taken from an Irish tale about a man who revealed his secrets to a tree.
One example is a message by Zou Fan, a 23-year old Chinese student who penned a post on Weibo before killing herself in 2012.
After her death, many other users added comments to her post, writing about their difficulties, thus turning the initial message into a “tree hole.”
The AI program automatically ranks the posts it finds from one to 10. A “9” means there is a strong certainty a suicide attempt will be made soon. A “10” means it is expected to be already underway. In these cases, volunteers attempt to call the police directly or contact the potential suicider’s relatives and friends.
But if the ranking is under 6 – meaning only negative words have been identified – the volunteers normally do not interfere. One of the problems commonly encountered by the team is the perception among older relatives that depression is not a “big deal.” “I knew I had depression when I was in college, but my mother dismissed it telling me it is ‘absolutely impossible – don’t think about it anymore’,” Mr Li said.
The AI program also found a message from a young woman, saying: “I will kill myself when New Year comes.” But when the helpers contacted her mother, they said she had smirked and said: “My daughter was very happy just now. How dare you say she intends suicide.”
Even after the volunteers showed proof of her daughter’s depression, the mother did not take the issue seriously. It was only after the episode in which the police had to stop the youngster jumping off a rooftop that the mother changed her mind.
A Long Journey Ahead
Regardless of its successes, Mr. Huang admits the limits of his project.
“Because Weibo restricts the use of web crawlers, we can only collect around 3,000 entries every day,” he said. “So we can only rescue one or two a day on average, and we choose to emphasize on the most urgent cases.”
Another concern is that some of those rescued require a lasting commitment. Volunteers sometimes find themselves tracking rescued contacts over the period of weeks and months. “Most of my life now is engaged with these rescued people,” Ms. Li said. “Occasionally, I get very tired.” She said she was presently in contact with eight people who had been saved. “I have to reply [to] them shortly after they send me a message,” she said.
Some team members also try to offer help offline. For instance, an AI professor is said to have found a data-labeling job for one person found to have a social anxiety disorder. There is also the issue that suicidal feelings can return. Ms. Peng gave the example of one teenager who had “looked better each day” after being saved but then killed herself.
“She was chatting with me about getting a new photo portrait on Friday,” Ms Peng said, adding that two days later the woman committed suicide.
“It’s a big blow to me that a person you got along with over a long time abruptly isn’t there.”
On the other hand, Mr Li remains healthy and now works at a hotel. “I like this job because I meet many different people,” he said.
He added while he was very grateful of the rescue team’s efforts; eventually, it was up to each individual to achieve a long-term solution. “Different people’s joys and sorrows are not completely interconnected,” he said. “You must rescue yourself.”