VU Professor of Artificial Intelligence Zhisheng Huang uses his suicide scanner to monitor the Chinese Internet. He has prevented at least 1,812 suicides since July 2018.
How did he come up with the idea of a suicide scanner?
“In 2018, I came across the blog by the Chinese writer Ma Jie, who had posted a message in 2012 saying that she was planning on committing suicide. Since then, it’s become a so-called ‘tree hole’, where young Chinese people post suicidal messages on a daily basis. I was shocked at what I read, and I wanted to offer them hope. Within a month I’d built my scanner.”
How does the scanner work?
“It’s a suicide scanner that uses artificial intelligence. It ploughs through the Chinese Internet day and night searching for messages indicating suicidal behaviour. At the moment, we’re scanning three thousand messages per day, giving each one a rating of one to ten on an urgency scale. When it detects a message with a high urgency rating, that’s when our work begins.”
“I believe that when someone’s in danger, privacy becomes a secondary priority.”
What happens then?
“When someone appears to be in life-threatening danger and the urgency rating is eight or higher, we try to contact their family, friends, or the police. They then try to contact the individual. Some people think that we’re ignoring the right to privacy. But I believe that when someone’s in danger, privacy becomes a secondary priority.”
“If the urgency is lower, then a volunteer will carefully try to contact the message writer. Most of the volunteers - around 600 of them - work in China. The darkest thoughts usually come at night, so we also have Chinese-speaking volunteers in Europe to deal with the time difference. They’re awake when it’s nighttime in China.”
Why do you think the suicide rate is so high in China.
“Mental problems are not accepted in China. People have a lot of misconceptions about mental issues. When people are depressed, others often think they’re crazy. So they keep their depression to themselves out of fear of rejection or that their employer will fire them. They don’t even inform their own friends or family. To have some kind of outlet, people will express their despair online.”
“The darker it is outside, the more people become suicidal. The biggest peak is during Chinese New Year.”
“Towards the end of the year, we see an increase in the number of suicides. “The darker it is outside, the more people become suicidal. The biggest peak is during Chinese New Year. For some people, it’s simply too hard to imagine being tormented by yet another year of suicidal thoughts.”
You’ve since been able to prevent 1,812 suicides. Do you ever receive replies from survivors?
“Virtually everyone is positive after they get past their painful thoughts. Some of them have even joined us as volunteers. They can speak from experience when they tell a person considering suicide: ‘I thought exactly the same way as you just a few months ago. I also believed that suicide was the only solution. Now I realise how dumb I was.”
If you are thinking about suicide, or know someone who is, please contact 113 online or call 0900-0113 immediately.