Often, when we hear about artificial intelligence becoming better than humans at a particular job, our first emotion is anxiety. Will robots take over another whole industry, throwing thousands out of work? Or, in even more terrifying sci-fi scenarios, will AI get so smart that our computers will actually turn on us?

But while worries about humans' rocky adjustment to an AI-filled future are understandable, it's helpful to also remember that advances in AI are producing tangible -- sometimes even jaw-dropping benefits -- today.

Take an incredible new suicide prevention tool dreamed up by Colin Walsh, a data scientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and described by Quartz's Olivia Goldhill recently as an example. The AI behind the program is so good at predicting who will take their own life it's almost spooky.

Astounding accuracy with only basic data

Just how accurate are the algorithms created by Walsh's team? "In trials, results have been 80-90 percent accurate when predicting whether someone will attempt suicide within the next two years, and 92 percent accurate in predicting whether someone will attempt suicide within the next week," reports Goldhill.

To achieve this stunning success rate, you might think the algorithm would need to digest vast quantities of data, weighing the import of nearly every detail of a patient's life. But, in fact, the algorithm manages such good predictions by examining only the most basic facts of a patient's medical history, data which is easy to obtain.

"The prediction is based on data that's widely available from all hospital admissions, including age, gender, zip codes, medications, and prior diagnoses," notes Goldhill.

At the moment, the algorithm is being tested in a second hospital, with researchers hoping to verify that it works in various contexts and come up with a suitable plan to intervene when someone is flagged as a suicide risk within the next two years. That means there's plenty of work yet to do before this tool can come into wide use, but the project is already identifying unexpected correlations that can help health professionals better understand the risk of self-harm.

For instance, the researchers were surprised to learn that taking melatonin, which is commonly used to ease insomnia, is closely tied with increased risk of suicide. "I don't think melatonin is causing people to have suicidal thinking. There's no physiology that gets us there. But one thing that's been really important to suicide risk is sleep disorders," Walsh explained to Goldhill.

The robots are coming... to save our lives.

All of this is promising news for those at risk of suicide and their loved ones, of course, but it should also be cheering for the rest of us too. With so many headlines blaring that 'robots are coming to take our jobs!' and pundits blaming various flavors of political and social dysfunction on the changes wrought by advancing technology, this story is a great reminder of the life-enhancing benefits of the tech revolution currently underway.

Published on: Jun 15, 2017