A language model is helping crisis-intervention volunteers practice their suicide-prevention skills.

What’s new: The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that operates a 24-hour hotline for LGBTQ youth, uses a “crisis contact simulator” to train its staff in how to talk with troubled teenagers, MIT Technology Review reported.

How it works: The chatbot plays the part of a distraught teenager while a counselor-in-training tries to determine the root of their trouble.

  • In-house engineers developed the system with help from Google. The team tested several models before settling on GPT-2.
  • The model was pretrained on 45 million web pages and fine-tuned on transcripts of role-playing between trainees and The Trevor Project staffers.
  • A different model helps triage incoming calls, also developed in collaboration with Google. When people log in to the chat system, a prompt asks them to describe their feelings. An ALBERT implementation analyzes their response for indicators of self-harm, flags those at highest risk, and prioritizes them to converse with a counselor.

Behind the news: AI is being used in a growing number of mental health settings.

  • ReachVet, a program of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, scans military records and generates a monthly list of former military members at high risk of suicide.
  • Chatbots like Flow, Lyssn, and Woebot (where Andrew Ng is chairman) aim to alleviate mood disorders like anxiety and depression in lieu of a human therapist.

Why it matters: Suicide rates among LGBTQ teens are two to seven times higher than among their straight peers, and they’re twice as likely to think about taking their own lives, according to the U.S. government. The Trevor Project fields over 100,000 crisis calls, chats, and texts annually. Speeding up the training pipeline could save lives.

We’re thinking: As a grad student at MIT, Andrew tried to volunteer for a crisis call line, but his application was rejected. Maybe training from this system would have helped!

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