#MeTooBots: AI Can Now Detect Harassment in Emails
Mon, April 19, 2021

#MeTooBots: AI Can Now Detect Harassment in Emails

With online movements such as #MeToo, #YesAllWomen, and more, the prevalence of sexual assault anywhere a woman goes is highlighted. But, this kind of situation goes back to many centuries ago / Photo by: David Pereiras Villagrá via 123RF

 

Being a woman means suffering from sexual harassment at least once in your life. Regardless of your age or who you are, women are subjected to sexism and the male gaze every day. With online movements such as #MeToo, #YesAllWomen, and more, the prevalence of sexual assault anywhere a woman goes is highlighted. But, this kind of situation goes back to many centuries ago. It is only in recent years that more and more women have been encouraged to speak up.

A 2018 survey conducted by nonprofit organization Stop Street Harassment revealed that 81% of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. According to NPR, an American privately and publicly funded non-profit membership media organization, this includes physical harassment, cyber harassment, sexual assaults, and verbal harassment such as being catcalled, whistled at, or getting unwanted comments of a sexual nature.

The survey showed that 77% of women had experienced verbal sexual harassment, 51% had been sexually touched without their consent, 41% reported being sexually harassed online, and 27% said they had survived sexual assault. "The findings show that this is a pervasive problem and permeates all sectors of our lives. Most people who said they had experienced sexual harassment experienced it in multiple locations,” Holly Kearl, the main author of the report, said. 

Sexual harassment is also prevalent in the workplace. In most cases, women are afraid to speak up or report the incident because of the consequences in their jobs. While there are a lot of women who have come forward, many are still left in the shadows. Fortunately, artificial intelligence is here to help us address the issue. With its increasing sophistication and success, it’s not surprising if AI would also succeed in addressing this issue.

Introducing the #MeTooBots

More and more organizations are starting to pay more attention to sexual harassment since the rise of the #MeToo movement. The efforts in stopping sexual harassment in the workplace have escalated to a new level involving AI bots. Researchers are now working on MeTooBots, AI-powered tools that aim to detect harassment through emails, instant messages, and text communications. One of the companies working on this is Nex AI.

Nex AI has created a version of this bot that examines company documents, chat, and emails, and compares it to its training data of bullying or harassing messages using an algorithm. According to The Guardian, a daily British newspaper, the bot looks for anomalies in the language, frequency, or timing of communication patterns across weeks, while constantly learning how to spot harassment. The information gathered is analyzed for several indicators that determine how likely it is to be a problem. 

Aside from Nex AI, another company that has been working towards developing AI-powered harassment detection tools is Spot. Spot has created a special chatbot which enables employees to anonymously report allegations of sexual harassment. The bot was programmed to ask questions and provide insights and advice to the employee. At the same time, it also helps in investigating the incident. The good thing about this bot is that it keeps the person anonymous because the company believes that every organization should deal with harassment issues in a sensitive manner.

Prof. Brian Subirana, a lecturer in AI at Harvard and MIT, stated that while the bots’ capabilities are limited, it is promising in rooting out harassment. “There’s a type of harassment that is very subtle and very hard to pick up. We have these training courses [about harassment] at Harvard, and it requires the type of understanding that AI is not yet capable of,” he said.

AI can only detect specific triggers that are taught to them. At the same time, it can’t pick up on broader cultural or unique interpersonal dynamics, which can leave gaps or can make it be oversensitive. “We don’t know when AI will break the ‘story understanding’ frontier,” Subirana said.

According to RT.com, the first Russian 24/7 English-language news channel, the reason behind this is that AI bots can only be taught pattern recognition. This means that they have a limited capacity to interpret broader cultural or interpersonal dynamics. Thus, any proposal to go out for drinks, comment on appearance, risqué joke, or even the stray mention of a body part will not be deemed as harassment by the bots, even though the employee may feel harassed. 

More and more organizations are starting to pay more attention to sexual harassment since the rise of the #MeToo movement. The efforts in stopping sexual harassment in the workplace have escalated to a new level involving AI bots / Photo by: alexandersikov via 123RF

 

Is It Ethical?

While #MeTooBots can encourage women to report any form of sexual harassment, experts seem skeptical about the technology since these would scan a person’s personal emails for harassment. They believe that this would turn it into an all-encompassing presence in constant need of monitoring and scrutiny. This will not only threaten the privacy of an individual but also the legitimacy of AI. 

However, Mumbai-based Beerud Sheth, co-founder of Gupshup and founder of Elance, believes monitoring of business emails may be acceptable since employees are expected to follow certain guidelines for business communication. “This is no different from CCTV cameras etc. However, it is still critical to define privacy policies, to strictly adhere to them and to communicate it to all users,” Sheth added. 

According to The Hindu, an English-language daily newspaper, no humans would read the emails. Only the machines would be allowed to. Thus, companies insist that there’s nothing to worry about. Indeed, #MeTooBots are a great opportunity for women to be heard. They deserve to feel safe wherever they go.