Ottawa’s Advanced Symbolics to lead AI project looking for suicide warning signs

Desperation
Stock image, for illustrative purposes only.

An Ottawa-based firm has been tapped by the federal government for a three-month pilot project designed to look for warning signs for suicide before tragedy strikes.

Advanced Symbolics Inc., is an artificial intelligence service company set to examine suicide hot spots across the country to better understand precursors to suicide.

The pilot, expected to start by the beginning of February, will examine all parts of the country including Indigenous communities, said chief scientist Kenton White, though he stressed the goal is not to focus on any particular group.

"What we would like to try and understand is what are the signals ... that would allow us to forecast where the next hot spots are so that we can help the government of Canada to provide the resources that are ... going to be needed to help prevent suicide before the tragedies happen," White said.

There were several high-profile "hot spots" in 2017, White added, noting northern communities and places like Cape Breton were hit particularly hard by spikes in suicide.

Advanced Symbolics' pilot will not identify individuals, White added, saying safeguards are in place to ensure individuals can't be identified within samples.

"This is not Minority Report and we are not identifying individuals who ... have risk of self harm," he said.

"We are not knocking on doors or contacting individuals. We have nothing that is personally identifiable about any individuals in this study."

Instead, the company turns to a technique to create randomized, controlled samples of social media users in all regions.

Advanced Symbolics previously made headlines for deploying a vote-forecasting tool to predict the outcome of elections in Canada, the U.S. and Europe using an analysis of social media and blog posts as well as other relevant blogs and news sites.

In the case of the 2016 presidential election south of the border, the firm was more accurate than most pundits and came within 0.7 percentage points of the actual share of the popular vote Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump respectively received.

The suicide prevention project will only use anonymous data already in the public domain for surveillance purposes, according to the Public Works contract award document posted online.

White, also an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa, said Tuesday his biggest hope is the research can demonstrate a positive application for artificial intelligence.

"So many times in AI research we hear the stories about AI is going to take jobs ... Big Brother is spying on us," he said.

"If you can show that (suicide) rates have gone down because we have deployed this sort of study, that would be most gratifying."

Dr. Stan Kutcher, a Dalhousie University psychiatry professor who examined a spate of Cape Breton teen suicides in 2017, said this summer that authorities need to look beyond bullying in their response to tragedies, adding there is a tendency to assume it causes "every single problem" young people have and that it is "just not true."

- With files from OBJ staff