In October 2020, UNESCO Institute for Information Technologies in Education (UNESCO IITE), in collaboration with the VKontakte social network, launched an innovative educational project: an AI-driven chatbot that can answer questions about the physiology and psychology of puberty, love, relationships and sexual health, including HIV prevention and treatment.
Why a chatbot?
The use of AI is a powerful educational trend of the 21st century, which also applies to health and well-being education. Experiments with creating consultant chatbots to advance health education have been ongoing for nearly a decade, showing significant growth in recent years. In 2018, Woebot, the first English-language mental health chatbot was launched, followed in 2019 by Roo, a chatbot for teens created by Planned Parenthood, and then by Sophie Bot, developed in Kenya. The chatbot named Eli is the first such product in Russian language.
Not every teenager has the opportunity to discuss sensitive topics with a trusted adult or to access quality professional counselling. Those who don’t will find the chatbot a convenient and safe option.
Eli can conduct hundreds of conversations per second; unlike a human, the bot does not get tired of repeating the same thing over and over again, it is available for a chat at any time and guarantees confidentiality. While a chatbot is no substitution for in-person interaction with a professional, it can give prompt responses to many vital questions and concerns.
“Every day, millions of young people search the Internet for answers to questions which they cannot ask in person, either because they feel uncomfortable or there is simply no one around whom they could ask. We have worked hard to create a chatbot that can give accurate answers promptly and anonymously, examine a problem from various perspectives, and provide assistance free from judgment and stereotypes. Eli the Chatbot is another step in implementing UNESCO’s global strategy to empower girls and boys to improve their health and relationships literacy. Research and activities carried out by the Section of Health and Education at UNESCO Headquarters as part of Switched on: sexuality education in the digital space gave a powerful impetus to taking this strategy forward and creating Eli.”
Tigran Yepoyan, Head of ICT and Health Education at UNESCO IITE
How does Eli work?
Users can ask Eli a question of their own or choose one of the suggested questions. Artificial intelligence powers the response, taking into account possible connections – for example, when talking about sexually transmitted infections, Eli will give information about symptoms and diagnostic methods and will also tell the user what to do if his or her partner does not want to use protection. A large proportion of Eli’s knowledge base covers HIV prevention, testing and treatment.
In its responses, Eli engages with topics directly related to sexual and reproductive health (anatomy, contraception) and those involving ethical and emotional aspects of relationships (consent, violence, decision-making). Risk awareness, attitudes towards their own and others’ health, partner trust, self-esteem, willingness to take responsibility, to give or deny consent are all intertwined and influence one’s decision-making in a complex way.
Eli can detect these not necessarily obvious connections and guide users towards finding a solution of their problem or an answer to their question.
“Eli is not just an information resource but artificial intelligence. It learns in the same way a child does. Medical doctors and psychologists introduce questions and related topics, and Eli masters these topics one after another. The hardest job for Eli is to understand questions asked directly by users, rather than chosen from the menu by pressing a button. Eli is programmed to process the wording of questions it encounters for the first time even when it cannot immediately answer them. The chatbot then saves these conversations for its own training after anonymizing and unlinking them from user and page ID. By doing so, Eli hides user information even from its own developers.”
Ivan Zhuravlev, Development Team Leader
The choice of topics for conversations with Eli: Health, Relationships, Psychology, Sex, Family and Physiology – was based on several factors. First, relevant findings from youth needs assessment studies and guidelines published by UNESCO and other UN agencies. Second, a review of existing resources for teens and young people, looking in particular at the frequency and topics of questions asked by users of these resources. Third, the relevant knowledge and experience of UNESCO experts working with youth. And, most importantly, consultations with young people in the community of volunteer activists that has been formed around this project.
The knowledge base was created by an editorial team in collaboration with health workers and psychologists using materials from research papers, popular science and educational resources, as well as expert publications. In the future, Eli’s knowledge base will be regularly updated with new answers prompted by the bot’s dialogues with users and suggestions from experts.
Eli’s language is unique in that it combines expertise with simplicity of presentation and respect for the user. In particular, Eli’s speech is gender neutral and free from stigma.
Facts and Figures
Eli is the first Russian-speaking AI-based chatbot used to promote sex education and psychological well-being among teens and young people. This kind of product, particularly one resulting from collaboration between UNESCO and VKontakte, could not go unnoticed. The news of its launch appeared in major federal media (TASS, Izvestia), tech media (TJournal, Ferra.ru) and resources about education and parenting (Ya Roditel, Mel). In total, more than 80 media outlets published reports about the new chatbot, potentially reaching out to 9.4 million people.
Eli has received extensive coverage from social media influencers. The chatbot has been featured in news, entertainment and social media channels covering gender equality, psychology and health. According to Brand Analytics, influencers generated 922 publications about Eli within a week of its launch. The commentators mentioned UNESCO and VKontakte and shared positive feedback on Eli’s competent responses and confidentiality of interactions. Posts about Eli have reached 341 700 views on Telegram and 626.900 views on Vkontakte.
The chatbot received a warm welcome from users. In the first six weeks after its launch, more than 12 000 people subscribed to Eli’s VKontakte page, and the chatbot answered more than 300 000 questions from 22 000 users.
The interim results of the project indicate that the chosen format (chatbot) is comfortable for adolescents aged 14 to 18 years old and can be used by other media as a tool for packaging large amounts of content that raises questions from the audience.
Ilya Stechkin, Project Consultant, Marketing Director at TechComLab.com
The following are just a few examples of feedback shared by Eli’s subscribers:
“Well done! A really important and much needed bot”
“Eli learns things and shares its learning with us. Go for it, Bot!”
“I would like to thank the creators of this project for being attentive, not indifferent to teens’ problems and fears. What you are doing is really good and makes a positive difference, and I wish you to do even better. Thank you for your work, you are great!”
“This is the most useful VK.com project over the last year”
“The idea of creating this chatbot was supported by our entire team. While coordinating the work of content creators and editors, software developers, experts and young volunteers who tested the bot was a challenge, this project has always been a source of joy and inspiration for all of us. Eli is an irreplaceable assistant for those who are growing up and discovering new feelings and relationships and who often need truthful information. Eli will continue to evolve and learn to give better and more precise answers to users.”
Maria Medvedchikova, Project Manager
Eli the Chatbot is an integral part of the ecosystem of digital tools designed to help young people make the right choices for their well-being. In addition to the chatbot, the ecosystem includes other UNESCO IITE projects, such as the LoveLogs: Relationship Diary mobile app, the Dvor digital media outlet, and the Teenslive portal.