Can AI Prevent Suicide? Facebook and Canada Think So

by Natasha Tracy - February 13, 2018

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Photo Credit: by

Some people find the idea of being watched by artificial intelligence (AI) to be somewhat concerning, but if artificial intelligence can help prevent suicides, it might just be worth it. Both the federal government of Canada and Facebook are set to use artificial intelligence in an effort to prevent suicides.

Facebook’s Suicide Prevention Efforts with AI

It is a sad fact that many people talk about suicide on Facebook. In fact, people threaten suicide on Facebook and, in some alarming cases, even show their suicide via Facebook Live. People can report suicidal thoughts and actions to Facebook and the software and a moderator will react. However, this takes time as the incident may not be reported right away or, in some cases, at all.

So, Facebook has turned to artificial intelligence to help reduce the suicides that are linked to Facebook. They aim to cut down the time it takes to get a real person to talk to someone who is threatening suicide online and they also aim to stop suicides in-progress.

According to TechCrunch:

“This is software to save lives. Facebook’s new “proactive detection” artificial intelligence technology will scan all posts for patterns of suicidal thoughts, and when necessary send mental health resources to the user at risk or their friends, or contact local first-responders. By using AI to flag worrisome posts to human moderators instead of waiting for user reports, Facebook can decrease how long it takes to send help.”

Facebook is also using AI to prioritize user reports so that serious issues like suicide are dealt with before minor content infractions. They are also dedicating more trained moderators to issues of suicide and are doing so in partnership with, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Forefront and other organizations.

During the first month of testing, Facebook initiated more than 100 “wellness checks” with first-responders visiting affected users. According to Vice President of product management Guy Rosen:

“This is about shaving off minutes at every single step of the process, especially in Facebook Live . . . There have been cases where the first-responder has arrived and the person is still broadcasting.”

At this time, there is no way for users to opt out of the artificial intelligence scanning but this is thought to be reasonable as this AI is for suicide prevention and thus, about the safety of all users.

The Canadian Government Is Trying to Prevent Suicides Using AI

The Canadian federal government has tasked Advance Symbolics Inc., an Ottawa-based market research company, with the challenge of using artificial intelligence to predict suicide risk in Canadian communities. This project, focusing on preventing suicide with AI, is not nearly as far along as the Facebook effort and is not aimed at an individual level, but rather at a community level.

Advance Symbolics Inc. will be working with the government and psychiatrists to determine what “suicide-related behaviour” looks like on social media. That information will then be used to conduct research on the Canadian population. The idea is not to invade anyone’s privacy nor intervene at a personal level but, rather, to help the government deploy better mental health resources to communities that show suicide clusters.

And, sadly, suicide clusters do occur. Even those taking depression medications may still experience suicidality.

These clusters are often seen in indigenous communities.

According to Vice News:

“For Indigenous Canadians younger than 44, suicide and self harm is the leading cause of death and suicides affecting First Nations communities across Canada have often been described as an epidemic. The issue is due in part to a chronic lack of mental health funding and resources on reserves, according to many First Nations leaders and advocates.”

In the past two years, three of these communities declared states of emergency due to suicide clusters. In one case, a First Nation’s community of about 2,000 people saw about 100 suicide attempts in 10 months, including 11 attempts in a single night. In another community, six people died by suicide in three months.

And while the Canadian government is clearly aware of these suicide clusters, there are more out there and they aim to find them through AI.

Using AI for Suicide Prevention

While AI can learn and predict actions, it is not perfect and there is always the risk of error or misuse. In the case of the Canadian government, anonymized data will be used and this is key to preventing misuse. This AI will also be looking at up to 160,000 social media accounts at a time, making mistakes less likely due to a better overall representation of communities.

Facebook’s AI, on the other hand, is much more dangerous. Right now it is used to try and predict suicidal actions but, theoretically, it could be used to report actions of any type, such as petty theft, to the authorities. While this is a fear of some people, Facebook appears to be taking these concerns seriously.

In the end, the motivation seems to be altruistic. As Chief Executive Office of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg wrote:

“There have been terribly tragic events — like suicides, some live streamed — that perhaps could have been prevented if someone had realized what was happening and reported them sooner . . . Artificial intelligence can help provide a better approach.”


Constine, Josh, Facebook Rolls Out AI to Detect Suicidal Posts Before They’re Reported. November 27, 2017.

Khandaker, Tamara, Canada Taps AI Firm to Analyze Social Media for Possible Suicide Spikes. Vice News. January 2, 2018.


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