Responses are routed to an experienced nonprofit employee or volunteer.
“It’s really accelerated our ability to reach people,” says Amanda Hightower, executive director of nonprofit Real Escape from the Sex Trade, or REST.
The software initially pretends to be the person in the ad, and can converse about its purported age, body, fetish services, and pricing.
But if a would-be buyer signals an intent to purchase sex, the bot pivots sharply into a stern message.“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,” goes one such message.
Limitations of the software have produced mixed results for businesses, but the deter-o-bot has proven good enough at its job.“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.
Microsoft itself stumbled with its Tay research chatbot that accidentally started talking dirty, but the sex-trade bot does not learn from people it talks to in the same way.
Project Intercept’s lead partner, Seattle Against Slavery, is working with counterparts in 21 other U. cities, including Boston and Houston, to deploy the bot more widely.
The chatbot, tested recently in Seattle, Atlanta, and Washington, lurks behind fake online ads for sex posted by nonprofits working to combat human trafficking, and responds to text messages sent to the number listed.
Seattle Against Slavery is also distributing a second service developed by Project Intercept, called Victim Reachout.
It harvests phone numbers from real online sex ads, and automatically sends messages to sex workers offering support or assistance getting out of the trade.
“I thought we should be able to use the things that we work with every day to help,” says Greg, a senior product manager at Microsoft, who asked not to disclose his last name to avoid recriminations from people involved in the sex trade.
“NGOs had strategies that were pretty effective but no way to scale them.”The pair’s initiative first took shape when they entered the philanthropic category of Microsoft’s annual week-long hackathon in 2012.