Microsoft has not had a huge amount of success preventing their chatbots from being corrupted, which may or may not explain why their new bot is designed from scratch to offer sexual services.
Part of Project Intercept, the bot converses via text message with clients drawn in by online ads for sexual services, on topics such as age, body, fetish services, and pricing and once it gets them to admit to an intent to purchase sex delivers a stern warning about the damage this can cause to others.
The warning can vary based on the conversation, if, for example, a potential buyer expresses an interest in someone underage but generally reads: “Buying sex from anyone is illegal and can cause serious long term harm to the victim, as well as further the cycle of human trafficking. Details of this incident will be reviewed further and you may be contacted by law enforcement for questioning.”
The bot was created as part of a philanthropic initiative whose lead partner is Seattle Against Slavery, and the aim is to reduce demand for sex workers, and the incentives for criminals to coerce people into the sex trade. Seattle Against Slavery is working with counterparts in 21 other U.S. cities including Boston and Houston to deploy the bot more widely.
“If law enforcement perform stings in a city they might get a few dozen people, but we know there have to be thousands and thousands of guys out there looking to buy sex,” says Robert Beiser, executive director of Seattle Against Slavery. “Wasting their time and delivering a deterrence message could change their perspective on what they’re doing.”
Dominique Roe-Sepowitz, director of Arizona State University’s Office of Sex Trafficking Intervention Research, says they could help expand the reach of anti-trafficking efforts. Research in Phoenix has shown that on average a single online sex ad attracts 63 potential buyers. “There aren’t enough detectives in the world to match the size of this market,” says Roe-Sepowitz.
The bot was created by the same Microsoft team as those who created PhotoDNA, which automatically detects and reports images of child exploitation, and which is now used by more than 70 companies and organizations, including Facebook and Twitter, and is designed to help NGOs scale their existing efforts beyond what actual human staff can accomplish. So far, the chatbot has exchanged 14,000 messages with nearly 1,000 people who responded to the planted ads. In about half those cases it heard enough to deliver a warning message.
“It helps that the guys who are buying sex are not paying much attention to the human being on the other end of the phone,” says Beiser, of Seattle Against Slavery.
It is not known how effective the technique will be in the long run, with research in Phoenix showing that when detectives in Phoenix used fake ads to surprise people looking to buy sex, nearly half of callers who were contacted by a cop later called another spoof ad. The new tools will, however, allow groups to test different messages and approaches at large scale, and gauge which are most effective.
“The hope is to get this activity down and protect a lot of people,” says Beiser.