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Eating disorder helpline shuts down AI chatbot that gave bad advice

The ChatGPT Revolution | CBS Reports
The ChatGPT Revolution | CBS Reports 22:38

An AI-powered chatbot that replaced employees at an eating disorder hotline has been shut down after it provided harmful advice to people seeking help. 

The saga began earlier this year when the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA) announced it was shutting down its human-run helpline and replacing workers with a chatbot called "Tessa." That decision came after helpline employees voted to unionize.

AI might be heralded as a way to boost workplace productivity and even make some jobs easier, but Tessa's stint was short-lived. The chatbot ended up providing dubious and even harmful advice to people with eating disorders, such as recommending that they count calories and strive for a deficit of up to 1,000 calories per day, among other "tips," according to critics.

"Every single thing Tessa suggested were things that led to the development of my eating disorder," wrote Sharon Maxwell, who describes herself as a weight inclusive consultant and fat activist, on Instagram. "This robot causes harm."

In an Instagram post on Wednesday, NEDA announced it was shutting down Tessa, at least temporarily. 

"It came to our attention last night that the current version of the Tessa Chatbot, running the Body Positive program, may have given information that was harmful and unrelated to the program," the group said in a statement. "We are investigating this immediately and have take down that program until further notice for a complete investigation."

The statement didn't note whether NEDA would replace Tessa with a human-operated helpline. The organization didn't immediately return a request for comment. 

The NEDA helpline workers who had been fired and replaced by Tessa wrote on May 26 that they were disappointed in the decision to replace them with AI technology. "A chatbot is no substitute for human empathy," they said in a tweet, adding that the decision would harm people with eating disorders. 

Other advice that Tessa provided included recommending purchasing skin calipers to test body composition, even suggesting where to buy the calipers, Maxwell wrote. The chatbot "pointed out that society has unrealistic beauty standards, while she gave me dieting advice," she said.

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