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Chatbot helps abuse victims

An artificial intelligence chatbot is set to change how abuse victims can understand and cope with abusive relationships, writes BRYAN TURNER.

An engaging AI bot named Bo is at the heart of a new Facebook Messenger chatbot service called rAInbow, launched in South Africa to help victims of abuse.  It provides advice on coping with abuse, as well as stories of abuse victims who have overcome their experiences and circumstances.

Domestic abuse is a big issue in South Africa, according to the South African Medical Research Council. In a household survey, it found that 40% of men had hit their partners and that one in four men had raped a woman. The same study found that just 2% of women who have been raped had reported it to the police.

Backed by the Sage Foundation, rAInbow aims to break the silence around domestic abuse by starting a conversation with victims. The chatbot can also chat to friends of abuse victims, and offers advice on how to get the conversation started with victims of abuse.

The chatbot’s AI is geared to learn from behavioural patterns of users and provide responses in line with the situation.

The developer and CEO of AI for Good, Kriti Sharma, says rAInbow was created with ethics in mind. It is not a replacement for a therapist, and claims only to provide options and stories from which abuse victims can learn.

rAInbow is accessible to a large portion of South Africans, as it does not require a smartphone. All it needs to run is access to Facebook Messenger, which can run on smartphones and some feature phones. It does also use data, although many South African networks provide access to Facebook Lite for free.

From left to right: Debbie Wall, VP Sage Foundation; Josina Machel, Speaker & activist for violence against women; Kriti Sharma, AI lead at Sage & founder of AI for Good; Joanne van der Walt, Global Director Sage Foundation.

A huge positive of the chatbot is that it isn’t in a separate app and exists on Facebook Messenger under a gender-neutral name: Hi Rainbow. This helps in the event of an abuser going through the victim’s device.

“The app is powered by the AI and natural language processing, but there has been a lot of work on the user experience,” says Sharma. “We’re trying to make the chatbot technology as easy to use as possible so the powerful technology behind it can fulfil its purpose.”

Data collected will make rAInbow smarter but will not be able to identify users, as users are assigned a random ID every time they chat with the bot. Data that will be used is how abusive situations affect the lives of South Africans and how to deal with it.

rAInbow is available now by searching “Hi rAInbow” in the search bar of Facebook Messenger.

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