Achilles’ death left a vacancy in the Greek ranks. Two contenders vied not only for the title of the greatest warrior but also to be the rightful heir to his armor: Odysseus, the ingenious architect of the Trojan horse and Ajax, a gallant warrior second only to Achilles. Odysseus was judged the winner, infuriating Ajax who mercilessly slaughtered the Greek army flock. Disgusted at his ignominious actions, Ajax fell on his own sword. A fearless warrior and descendent of the Gods was not immune to the act of suicide.
Technology is the latest arrival in a series of disciplines including Psychiatry, Psychology, Sociology, Moral Philosophy and Law to address the complex phenomenon of suicide. The vast majority of suicides are associated with mental illness namely conditions such as Depression, Schizophrenia and Bipolar Affective Disorder. However, most individuals with such diagnoses do not attempt suicide and thus it would be facile to assume that suicide is best viewed through the Psychiatric prism alone. The implicating factors can be biological, psychological, social, and cultural – each of these can be further subdivided e.g. genetic, drug/alcohol addiction, socio-economic, childhood trauma etc. Furthermore, it is difficult to ascertain how many of these are culpable and to what extent.
The WHO estimates that globally 800,000 people commit suicide each year, approximately 1 every 40 seconds. In its Mental Health Action Plan 2013–2020, each member state has committed to reduce its suicide rate by 10% by 2020. Another such country strengthening its commitment to suicide prevention is the virtual nation state of Facebook which has 2.07 billion citizens and rising. The tech giant plans to dedicate a greater number of moderators trained in dealing with suicide who will review flagged content detected using pattern recognition and artificial intelligence algorithms. The moderators can then notify emergency services if deemed necessary thus identifying and helping those at an increased risk of suicide.
The skeptically inclined would question if Facebooks’ motivations are altruistic, ulterior or a cocktail of both. The spate of suicides happening on Facebook Live has inevitably been a catalyst driving this effort. Perhaps Zuckerberg has been inspired by the erudite philosopher Spidermans’ teachings on power and responsibility, and is thus striving to create a safe community both within and beyond the web. The possibility of mere posturing remains given the corporate oligarch has been opportunistic in parading its social conscience in neon halos whenever possible.
Facebook was loath to accept the negative impact social media played on the mental health of adolescents until the research was difficult to disregard — a trait reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s rejection that cigarette smoking had any link to lung cancer. In order to improve the psychological wellbeing of users, Facebook recently introduced two features. “Snooze” allows the user to hide a person, page, or group for up to 30 days and “Take A Break” soothes post breakup blues by minimizing the online activity of an ex. However, they could be mistaken for plot gimmicks in a light-hearted Black Mirror episode rather than effective solutions.
Proactive, albeit symbolic, first steps on a road paved with good intentions may not lead to hell but it would be presumptuous to assume a technological panacea addressing suicide or user’s mental health is within touching distance. The labyrinthine underpinnings of suicide outweigh the sophistication of current AI. This may well change in the future as our expectations from AI increase to the point where its progeny ought to decipher imperfect, conflicted and tangled human thoughts without much difficulty. After all, Facebook may one day take inspiration from Philip K Dick’s Minority Report and create “Precog” equivalents for suicide, so Ajax and the millions after him, even those descended from mere mortals could be given a second chance.