SnehAI - Artificial Intel chatbot for young Indian’s sexual, reproductive health
The study has been authored by Hua Wang, Sneha Gupta, Arvind Singhal and Poonam Muttreja
This paper presents rich insights from an instrumental case study of an innovative chatbot in India called SnehAI, which was conceptualised and designed to educate and inspire adolescents and young adults to live healthy lives, promote sexual and reproductive health (SRH), and advocate for the health and well-being of women and girls. The SnehAI chatbot aims to provide a safe space for Indian youth to have conversations about SRH, dispel sex-related myths and taboos, offer accurate information about safe sex and contraceptive choices, and address mental health concerns. With a population of approximately 1.4 billion, India accounts for about 18% of all people on the planet, with half of this population being under the age of 25 years. Despite stated policy commitments and significant strides made in recent years, the informational needs of adolescents and youth are poorly met, quality education about SRH is highly limited, contraceptive practices are heavily skewed toward female sterilisation, and unsafe abortions are rampant.
Young people in India have limited awareness of contraception and sexually transmitted infections; their knowledge base consists of inaccurate information; and their family life education is highly insufficient. Although the government-endorsed national adolescent health program Rashtriya Kishor Swasthya Karyakram (RKSK) has included SRH as part of its mandate since 2014, direct contact with frontline health workers, even by married young women, was extremely low. Contact with unmarried youth and use of SRH services at adolescent-friendly health clinics are almost completely amiss. Uncomfortable and embarrassed to ask, young people in India have increasingly referred to web-based platforms to look for answers to SRH questions and have garnered misleading or incorrect information. In a day and age when mobile services and social media are proliferating in India, this is unfortunate. At the beginning of 2020, India boasted of around 1.1 billion mobile phone connections, covering 78% of the population. With attractive pricing from India-based telecom giants, internet penetration and social media use through mobile networks are rapidly growing. Facebook (Meta Platforms) is an obvious leader in the social media space in India, with 320 million users. With this massive expansion of information infrastructure comprising wireless networks, digital technologies, and social media, Indian youths, both in urban and rural areas, are increasingly being plugged into this technology web.
One technology within the realm of social media that has experienced a rapid rise in different industries is chatbots. Chatbots are automated non-human agents that engage in conversations with human actors. By design, the user experience in a chatbot strives to be pleasant, as it mimics a scenario in which two humans are talking with each other. A chatbot responds by accessing information stored in large digital data repositories. Chatbots quickly sieve what is relevant and convert programming codes into expressions that humans can understand. Although chatbots are often text based, their capabilities have exploded since the pioneering programme ELIZA, especially in their increased sophistication and accuracy in understanding natural language using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies. With AI, chatbots create a dynamic library of answers, building on their existing database with each conversation that occurs. This process of machine learning makes their deployment immensely valuable for disseminating information. Not surprisingly, AI chatbot health apps are burgeoning, and they have unique advantages for addressing sensitive and taboo issues such as SRH. However, to date, AI chatbot initiatives in low-income countries are scarce. Furthermore, for chatbot projects that do get underway, systematic documentation and assessment are needed to generate new knowledge for the greater public good.
Winner of the 2020 eNGO Challenge Award in Digital Tools and Empowerment, SnehAI represents the first Hinglish (Hindi + English) AI chatbot that is cocreated with and for young people, especially those from vulnerable sections of society, to deliberately facilitate communication about SRH topics and promote social and behavioral change. It benefits the target population in many unique ways, but most importantly, it fills a gap that exists in the information around SRH. In a world where digital technologies for underdeveloped markets fail to consider consumers’ hedonic needs, such as play, romance, and entertainment, SnehAI provides an unusual repository of educational knowledge in an entertaining and engaging container, commonly referred to as entertainment-education or edutainment. Recent anthropological studies have shown that digital natives, irrespective of their socioeconomic status, tend to be attracted to entertainment and storytelling when consuming social media content. Thus, to spread crucial health information in diverse populations, the content of social media platforms needs to engage users. Therefore, the SnehAI chatbot in India offers a terrific opportunity for systematic investigation.
We focused our investigation on the different ways that SnehAI enables SRH information-sharing and user engagement. First, we presented our guiding framework, the theory of affordances. Our literature review highlights both foundational arguments and affordances of relevant technologies. We then described our methodological approach, an instrumental case study that harvests the unique contributions of SnehAI. Our findings are organised by our theoretically derived research questions: first, on the functional affordances of SnehAI, and second, on the user engagement patterns of SnehAI. We concluded with a discussion of these major findings, raising implications for theory and practice, and set some directions for future endeavours.
(The study has been authored by Hua Wang, Sneha Gupta, Arvind Singhal and Poonam Muttreja)