By Ariel Grossman, NoCamels -
It was a murder that shocked Israel. Michal Sela, a social worker in Jerusalem, was stabbed to death by her husband Eliran Malul in front of their eight-month-old daughter in October 2019.
In the aftermath, Michal’s sister Lili Ben Ami founded the non-profit Michal Sela Forum, using technology to prevent further domestic violence and abuse.
Michal, 32, was later featured in the powerful Listen To Our Voices campaign that employed artificial intelligence developed in Israel to bring alive still pictures of her and other victims, which the non-profit collaborated on.
It gave them speech and facial expressions to share their chilling first-person stories and encourage others trapped in abusive situations to seek help before it’s too late.
Now Michal’s legacy also lives on in Sophia, the world’s first interactive domestic abuse chatbot.
Shiran Mlamdovsky Somech works for D-ID, the Israeli company whose tech is behind the Listen To Our Voices campaign. She initiated the campaign in November 2021, and it went viral with 10 million views in three days.
She met Spring ACT, the Swiss non-profit that connects human rights and technology behind the Sophia chatbot, at a conference last year.
They had already developed the Sophia – but through her intervention, they went on to incorporate D-ID’s technology to bring her to life.
“I believed we could create a much better experience using Sophia, one that is recurring, more interactive, more compelling, and even more human-like,” says Mlamdovsky Somech. “Even though the chatbot is so powerful, it was very static.”
D-ID, which specializes in creating hyper-real AI avatars, brought Sophia alive using a combination of deep learning algorithms, image processing, and neural networks to animate her still photo.
“We thought we could make a much better experience for people using the chatbot, and make it more accessible to people that don’t know how to read as well, and in different languages,” says Mlamdovsky Somech, Impact Leader at D-ID.
Sophia assists victims of domestic abuse 24/7 – no matter where they are located, and in strict confidentiality – to feel safe and confident enough to take the first steps to get help.
She tells victims what they need to know if they plan on leaving their abusive relationship, and most importantly, where and how to find help, no matter where they are.
She also tells users how to collect potential evidence of the abuse that is taking place, which could be used by lawyers for custody decisions, divorce proceedings, and obtaining restraining orders with the support of the police.
Users can store images, screenshots, recordings, notes, and videos in their own personal digital safe, which remain encrypted and untouched until they decide to access them.
Sophia isn’t going to replace emergency services – but she will offer a viable alternative to crisis intervention hotlines, and support hotlines, which are underfunded and, as a result, are understaffed and do not have enough employees to support all the victims that call in.
And unlike a regular chatbot, Sophia can actually talk to users in seven different languages, making her accessible to populations who are not as literate, and a confidant for victims who don’t feel comfortable sharing their struggles with other people.
Mlamdovsky Somech first understood the social impact of AI through her campaign. D-ID used its AI and animation capabilities to capture the voices, facial features, and gestures of the late Israeli women, based on their still images.
“We actually brought back to life women who were murdered by their intimate partners,” says Mlamdovsky Somech. “And we saw the impact we created. From that point, I understood that this is what I wanted to do from now on: I wanted to use technology to affect people, and to improve their lives.”
Sophia helps victims to gather potential evidence and seek help in 222 countries. Since December 2021, more than 15,000 people have used the chatbot.
Mlamdovsky Somech and the D-ID team are actively looking for new ways to elevate the experience of using Sophia.
Microsoft is supporting the Sophia campaign through its Philanthropies program, which is using the global company’s text-to-speech capabilities and AI cloud infrastructure. UN Women, the United Nations entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, also supports the Sophia campaign.