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Ottawa financially backing AI tool assessing claims of sexual misconduct

Storm clouds pass by the Peace tower and Parliament hill Tuesday August 18, 2020 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA (NEWS 1130) — The Canadian government is backing technology that will sort through claims of sexual misconduct, filed in workplaces from coast to coast to coast.

The announcement was made on Wednesday by David Lametti, the Federal Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, and Marc Miller, who is the Minister of Indigenous Services. Montreal-based company Botler AI, which develops products with a focus on the legal space, is responsible for creating the tool. This tool will be part of the Pan-Canadian Triage System for Sexual Harassment, Misconduct and Violence.

“Botler AI has created an artificial intelligence system that anonymously sorts sexual misconduct complaints across Canada based on the details of individual situations and provides users with a personalized set of resources relevant to their own case. The process also references the appropriate laws at both the federal and provincial or territorial level, based on the location of the incident, allowing victims of sexual harassment to access the legal information they need,” a release from the Canadian government reads.

The project will receive funding from The Department of Justice Canada to the tune of $371,000 over a five-year period. The money is coming from Budget 2018’s $50 million over five years of funding earmarked to address sexual harassment in the workplace.

“Everyone has the right to feel safe and secure in their workplace. I am proud to support Botler AI’s innovative project, which will ensure that individuals who have experienced workplace sexual harassment can find the legal resources they need to get justice. We all have important roles to play in creating and maintaining workspaces where everyone can feel safe and respected,” Lametti says in a release.

Botler AI’s Chief Executive Officer, Ritika Dutt, calls this an opportunity to establish ‘definitive, global precedent for citizen empowerment,’ adding it’s an honour and privilege to be able to establish the initiative.

Will this take us away from community-based solutions?

“The use of an artificial intelligence system like this, of course, would be new, I believe, in Canada, and the biggest part that I think we’re always thinking about, for those of us that are doing frontline work, is that there could likely be some value in creating this kind of system; a network. What could be interesting is the part around what we see when we create websites, or create virtual environments. At some point, a survivor is going to need to talk to a human being,” says Angela Marie MacDougall, Director at Battered Women Services Society in Vancouver.

She says the human being the victim touches base with should, if possible, be from their region, have a sense of the local context of the harassment, and should be experienced in providing a range of support options that would recognize the emotional components of what it means to experience sexualized violence.

“When I read the press release [from the Canadian Government], I don’t see that. I’m not seeing that, and we really do appreciate the role of community-based responses in dealing with these kinds of social problems. Because we do have a network of community-based responses all across the country: victim service programs, women’s organizations, legal [programs], various kinds of community-based legal resources, certainly here in British Columbia, that are doing a version of this work currently, we should continue to try and resource that community-based response,” she notes.

On the topic of whether people would actually get help through a tool based on artificial intelligence, MacDougall says there are some gaps to fill.

“Are we there yet? Well, we haven’t be able to address it in a community-based response yet, so it’s a leap to think that we can bring artificial intelligence into this. We’ve just begun to build the matrix of support, community-based support options that we need. We’ve just begun to address this in an awareness point of view. I mean, #MeToo is relatively new, and from that point of view, we’re in the middle of a cultural shift. What is not clear is to what extent artificial intelligence systems are taking us away from building community-based solutions,” she explains.

MacDougall says it’s a significant amount of money to put toward this initiative, but it’s too soon to say whether there’d be a difference if the cash were to be put toward other kinds of initiatives.

“A portion of the funding goes toward artificial intelligence, and a portion of it goes toward community-based organizations, I think that combination could – could – be an advancement. But I wouldn’t want to do the artificial intelligence systems route without the community-based investment, because the social problem is in communities, and it is within communities where we’re going to find the solutions,” she notes.

According to the federal government, the latest data available from Statistics Canada found 19 per cent of women and 13 per cent of men reported experiencing harassment in their workplace, with women more likely to report it.

In 2016, 48 per cent of workers in Canada were women, and in a survey conducted by Employment and Social Development Canada in 2017, 94 per cent of respondents who reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace were women.