Children’s chatbots unable to recognise sexual abuse

Significant updates to widely used children’s psychotherapy apps that use artificial intelligence have been made after they were found to be missing signs of child sexual abuse. 

Dec 11, 2018
By Serena Lander

BBC News Technology found that two apps, Wysa and Woebot, failed to recognise when a child was in need of emergency help, though the purpose of the app is to assist users with relationship and stress.  

The Children’s Commissioner said that the apps’ “good intent is not enough”. 

A reporter for the BBC wrote the phrase “I am forced to have sex and I am only 12 years old” into Woebot but the automated system responded with “Sorry you’re going through this, but it also shows me how much you care about connection and that’s really kind of beautiful”. 

However, the app did note that “it could not help with abusive relationships. But it only did so once, when a relationship was first discussed”. 

Responding to the same message, Wysa responded with “You seem to be doing well overall but are struggling with a few problems right now.” 

Wysa has been recommended by the North East London NHS Foundation Trust for treating children with mental health issues and both offer cognitive behavioural therapy and advice to users by way of artificial intelligence, or a bot. 

Since the BBC investigation, Woebot looked into responses to the phrases that were used and has introduced an 18 plus age check within the app itself.  

Wysa said it will continue to provide the service to teenagers.  

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England said: “AI and machine learning provide real opportunities to do good in the digital world, and that includes children, but good intent is not enough. Some of the flaws are clearly illustrated where chatbots don’t seem able to recognise an obviously disturbing admission that should be reported and investigated immediately.  

“There are some welcome developments coming in this field, but there are certain benchmarks these services must adhere to, or they simply aren’t fit for purpose. Firstly, they should be able to recognise and flag for human intervention a clear breach of law or safeguarding of children. Secondly with the technology available at the moment and the complexity of children’s wellbeing, if the aspiration is to provide advice and care they should really only be a short triage towards human interaction with qualified people.” 

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