Scientists have developed AI to detect sexual harassment in emails

The AI can monitor internal conversations, emails and chats 

Sophie Gallagher
Friday 03 January 2020 17:20 GMT

Robots known as #MeToo bots are being developed by programmers in a bid to tackle sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace.

The artificial intelligence programmes are being designed to enable internal communications such as company documents, emails and chat, to be monitored and inappropriate content flagged to employers.

The programme is named after the #MeToo movement, an international campaign against the sexual harassment of women, prompted by allegations of assault against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. He denies the claims.

One company that has designed such software, Chicago-based NexLP, says the AI programme is already being used by 50 corporate clients in the USA and law firms in London.

But NexLP’s chief executive, Jay Leib, says teaching robots how to define harassment hasn’t been easy.

The algorithm is trained to identify potential problems and then send them to a lawyer or HR manager to investigate.

Mr Leib says exactly what indicators are deemed red flags remains a company secret, but the bot is looking for anomalies in language, frequency or timing of communication patterns across weeks.

“I wasn’t aware of all the forms of harassment. I thought it was just talking dirty. It comes in so many different ways,” he told The Guardian.

Other AI experts say such technology can have limitations because AI can only look for certain triggers, and cannot pick up on broader cultural or unique interpersonal dynamics.

This mean the robots might miss things or, at the other end of the spectrum, be oversensitive.

And, in the slightly longer-term, offenders may learn how to trick the software or use other lines of communication which are not being monitored, rendering it useless.

Whether AI is the answer or not, it is clear work still needs to be done by employers to improve conditions for female staff.

Research by the Young Women's Trust from October 2019 found one in four young women are scared they will be sacked if they report sexual harassment at work.

Released on the second anniversary of the #MeToo movement, the research found that just 6 per cent of young women who had been sexually harassed at work reported the misconduct.

And the majority of people in their twenties don't think #MeToo positively changed their workplace.

More than 1,000 twentysomethings took part in the poll, which asked them to state how they thought #MeToo had impacted their working lives, and only two per cent said they’d noticed a positive change.

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