Work on AI algorithm could help create safe spaces from online abuse

20 June 2022, 00:04

Laptop user
Online child sexual abuse. Picture: PA

The work is being carried out by researchers at the National Robotarium, led by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh.

A new algorithm being developed in a bid to tackle gender online abuse could help “drive positive social and cultural change”.

The Scottish and UK Governments have both welcomed work being done by researchers at the National Robotarium, which involves Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh.

Researchers there are working on advanced “machine learning” algorithms that could significantly improve the detection of online abuse, as well as help with intervention and prevention.

The project, which  has been awarded £1 million funding from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), will see high tech AI tools created which use a broad variety of viewpoints, perspectives and experiences to improve the detection of online abuse.

In addition the work will include the development of new educational material to help young people understand and recognise online gender-based violence and become more confident responding to it.

Professor Verena Riese
Professor Verena Rieser said the work would help create ‘online spaces that are equally safe irrespective of someone’s gender, race or background’ (National Robotarium/PA)

Principal investigator and professor of conversational AI at the National Robotarium, Verena Rieser, said the project would “rethink what it is we need to detect” online abuse, as well as “how best to support victims and the role education can play as a tool for prevention”.

The Heriot-Watt University professor added: “Outcomes from the project will help create online spaces that are equally safe irrespective of someone’s gender, race or background, and provide more effective and transparent means of moderation, giving users more control over their online experiences.”

Co-researcher and reader in computer science education at the National Robotarium, Dr Fiona McNeill, said that as online abuse could be a “huge problem for children and young people” as well as adults, the project “will be working with young people to understand their experiences of online abuse, the language they use around this and the way in which young victims need to be supported”.

She said: “Through this interactive work, we will create educational materials that help young people understand and recognise online gender-based violence, to gain confidence in responding to it, either as a victim or a bystander, and to recognise if they are perpetrating it.”

Welcoming the research, Scottish Office minister Iain Stewart, said: “Hate speech and harassment are just as unacceptable online as they are offline.

“For too long online platforms have enabled the most vile forms of targeted abuse with almost no consequences for perpetrators, and minimal support and protection for victims.

“I am hopeful that this research into new AI algorithms will deliver a valuable tool in fighting back and creating safer online environments.”

Scottish Economy Secretary Kate Forbes said: “Everyone should feel equally safe and respected, whether online or offline.”

She added: “As a key component of the City Region Deal, the team behind the National Robotarium is working to help tackle online abuse, using artificial intelligence to help make our society more inclusive.

“This work will drive positive social and cultural change, with the potential to create an impact felt far beyond Edinburgh and the south east of Scotland.”

By Press Association

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