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6 Oct, 2021 11:07

Abstinence & condoms? AI chatbot in Singapore dropped after giving strange advice about testing positive for Covid-19

Abstinence & condoms? AI chatbot in Singapore dropped after giving strange advice about testing positive for Covid-19

Singapore’s Ministry of Health (MOH) has taken down a chatbot tool after it dispensed a series of “misaligned” responses – including safe sex advice – to questions about Covid-19 concerns. The gaffes were widely shared online.

When the artificial intelligence-powered chatbot, called ‘Ask Jamie’, was asked what to do by a parent whose daughter had tested positive for the virus, it replied, “You should practise safe sex through the correct and consistent use of condoms, or abstinence, for at least the whole duration of your female partner’s pregnancy.”

Screenshots of similar errors appeared online earlier this week, even spawning a dedicated Reddit post that prompted jokes about Covid-19 becoming an STD (sexually transmitted disease) and humorous comparisons between the chatbot and the Skynet computer in the 'Terminator' movie franchise.

In response to a query about where a Singapore resident could get an ART (antigen rapid test), the chatbot offered an unrelated answer about how “the polio vaccine is available at polyclinics, private clinics as well as travellers clinics”.

If the question was phrased differently, however, the chatbot would apparently provide the appropriate advice – for the Covid-positive person to remain calm and stay at their place of accommodation or designated health facility while waiting for “necessary transport arrangements” to the hospital.

On account of the “misaligned” replies, the MOH told local media outlets it had “temporarily disabled” the chatbot on Monday to “conduct a thorough system check and work on improvements.” According to media reports, however, Ask Jamie remains functional on several other government sites.

The chatbot was developed by the country’s Government Technology Agency (GovTech) in 2014 and is deployed on 70 government agency websites. During the pandemic, GovTech reportedly encouraged residents to use the tool – touted by one software provider as the “world’s first Whole of Government Virtual Assistant” – for Covid-related concerns. 

It apparently uses natural language processing (NLP) technology to “understand” a question and pull out the most relevant answer from the respective government agency’s website or database.

Also on rt.com UK government’s WhatsApp ‘chatbot’ service aimed at countering Covid-19 ‘misinformation’ suffers launch malfunction

Among the benefits of using Ask Jamie listed on GovTech’s website are the “greater convenience and accessibility to the government” it offers, the promise of “quick and direct answers to queries” and a “better user experience through conversational digital interactions.”

However, tech news outlet Techwire Asia noted that GovTech is planning to replace the chatbot with a “next-generation virtual assistant platform” called VICA (short for Virtual Intelligent Chat Assistant) in the near future. The new tool is reportedly already controlling chatbots on the Singaporean government’s website and Covid-19 WhatsApp channels.

Meanwhile, the MOH has instructed residents to look to the government’s official Covid-19 portal for assistance with further queries.

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