NTT DATA Business Solutions
NTT DATA Business Solutions | February 12, 2024 | 5 min read

Saving lives with Artificial Intelligence

In this blog article, we would like to introduce you to a social project from our Sustainability Report 2022/23: Frankfurt University Hospital runs a suicide hotline. But many people cannot get through to talk to someone because the counselors are in other conversations. NTT DATA Business Solutions is solving this problem with the help of artificial intelligence.

artificial intelligence saves lives

Suicide helpline

The “AI suicide helpline” project forms part of a support program for sustainability funded by our mother company NTT DATA. The aim is to save the lives of more suicidal people by ensuring that they are passed on to suicide hotline counselors more quickly.

When urgency matters: Innovating suicide hotlines to save lives

Nothing is stronger than the drive to survive. But even this motivation can sometimes end and turn into the opposite. That is when people need immediate assistance to help them decide against death and in favor of life. The employees of the suicide hotline at Frankfurt University Hospital are trained for extreme situations like these. Their task is to change the mindset of any person who is severely suicidal and persuade them to seek immediate help. But sometimes this support does not reach the people who need it because they cannot get through to the hotline. The reason: Many of those who call it are not at risk of suicide at all.

“Some people call the hotline because their dog just died or their kids won’t listen to them. Sometimes it is teachers who have had a particularly stressful day,” says Thomas Noermark, Head of the Global Innovation Team at NTT DATA Business Solutions. Noermark has set himself the task of making sure help reaches those who need it the most. Four out of every five people who call the hotline are not suicidal. At present, all of them are put through to counselors who make the decision whether urgent assistance is required. This takes a lot of time. Time that could be used to deal with other, more urgent cases.

Effectively preventing overload with Artificial Intelligence

In future, Artificial Intelligence (AI) will help to determine whether a caller is really at risk of suicide. No more waiting, no tedious error-prone selections and no pressing numbers on the telephone. The plan is for these steps – which are stressful enough for people in a settled state of mind – to be eliminated altogether. Instead, a friendly Artificial Intelligence voice will ask the caller why they are calling and determine if they are at risk of committing suicide. If they are, they will be passed on to a human counselor immediately.

But how can Artificial Intelligence be smart enough to tell whether a person is considering ending their life? Noermark: “Right at the outset, we held a number of long meetings with the scientists in Frankfurt. It was important for us to familiarize ourselves with the field and gain an understanding of what the experts do in counseling sessions and how they find out whether someone is in immediate danger.”

One argument in favor of integrating Artificial Intelligence into this sensitive process is that professionals tend to ask fairly direct questions anyway, such as whether a person is thinking about taking their life right now. “It usually takes no more than three questions for the AI to decide whether a caller should be passed on to a human counselor,” Noermark explains. All other callers are provided with information on alternative support. This may sound simple, but the reality is very different. After all, people who call the hotline are in despair and may be confused or difficult to understand. An artificial voice that fails to properly interpret their situation could end up making things worse. The latest developments in AI have come at exactly the right time for the project. “The progress that has been made in the last three years is remarkable,” says Noermark.

Back then, NTT DATA Business Solutions initiated a similar project in Denmark, which is home to “Children’s Welfare” – a hotline for children who want to talk about their problems. 130,000 calls a year were failing to get through because the lines were overloaded. NTT DATA Business Solutions helped to optimize the call selection process so that more children were able to talk to someone who could listen and give them help. “The project also attracted attention outside Denmark, including at Frankfurt University Hospital,” Noermark explains. The plans in Frankfurt are ambitious. Following the successful implementation of Artificial Intelligence in the call screening process, they aim to harness this improved efficiency to expand the hotline from a regional service into a Germany-wide offering, among other things.

However, that is still some way off. Noermark: “We originally wanted to train the AI using recordings of real conversations, but this was not possible for reasons including data protection considerations.” Instead, roleplays covering a wide range of different scenarios were developed, conducted and recorded. “We have now reached a point where the Artificial Intelligence can reliably determine whether someone is suicidal in laboratory-type conditions.” And a talking AI voice has been developed that can engage with incoming test calls and decide whether the caller should be passed on to an expert in the space of just a few minutes.

We have now reached a point where the Artificial Intelligence can reliably determine whether someone is suicidal in laboratory-type conditions.

Thomas Nørmark Director, Global Head of Innovation, NTT DATA Business Solutions

The crucial phase: Putting AI to the test in suicide prevention

The next step is an important one: the practical test. Where a highly sensitive topic like this is concerned, the work needs to be as precise as possible. “It would be terrible if someone were to commit suicide after calling the hotline and their surviving relatives were to put the blame on our AI,” Noermark says.

But is 100% certainty ever possible? Not according to the experts from Frankfurt University Hospital. People make mistakes, and so will the AI. But hopefully not as many. Noermark: “We will need to be able to empirically demonstrate that more suicidal people got through to a hotline counselor after our technology was introduced.”

And what happens if the project proves to be a success? This social sustainability initiative will undoubtedly also have commercial applications. Hotlines are a source of irritation for customers of all kinds of businesses from insurers and financial service companies to mobile operators. The prospect of being listened to and receiving expert advice and assistance with no time delay is something that will surely warm the hearts of companies and consumers alike.

“Because the AI could be scaled up for more or less any kind of hotline, the business potential is considerable,” says Noermark. The innovation expert will be responsible for ensuring that the insights from the Frankfurt project are disseminated throughout the various business areas of his company. However, he has no intention of taking sole credit. “The true heroes are the members of the project team from Frankfurt University Hospital and NTT DATA Business Solutions.”

Get in touch with our team

Thomas Nørmark is the Global Head of Innovation at NTT DATA Business Solutions. In this capacity, the Danish innovation expert is also responsible for the “AI suicide helpline” social sustainability project. The seven-person project team includes an Artificial Intelligence specialist, a front-end developer, and a human voice designer.

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