Photo by Aaron Pedersen


Five Things I've Learned About Using AI for Social Good

Instead of a career in journalism, one arts graduate launched a startup to neutralize internet toxicity with technology

By Caitlin Crawshaw, ’05 BA(Hons)

May 13, 2022 •

Lana Cuthbertson, ’10 BA, didn’t set out to create a tech startup — never mind battle internet trolls. But after a brief newspaper internship made it clear that a career in the world of media wasn’t for her, she harnessed her love of politics into an artificial intelligence model aimed at making the internet a more positive place for women. 

It all started in 2017, when she co-created an Edmonton-focused organization called ParityYEG with friend Kasey Machin to boost the number of women running in local elections. Conversations with women got them thinking about how their organization might counter online harassment of female political candidates, so the pair developed ParityBot — an AI-powered system that detects abusive tweets and responds with positive ones. Four elections and plenty of positive tweets later, Cuthbertson and Machin turned their bot into a solution for businesses with their startup Areto Labs, where they were later joined by a third co-founder, Jacqueline Comer, ’01 BA. Cuthbertson took a break from her myriad duties as CEO and founder to share some of her biggest lessons so far about using AI for social good.

1: Trolls lurk around every corner 

Since the dawn of the World Wide Web, people have exploited internet anonymity to behave badly online. With the growth of social media, the problem is only getting worse. “Trolls are everywhere,” says Cuthbertson. “There are thousands of public micro-communities online tucked within social media platforms.” All are at risk of members within the group — and, in some cases, bots — harassing others. Research into the impetus behind trolling is growing, but in Cuthbertson’s experience, it boils down to power: bad actors realize the potential for noxious words to create disruption in society.

2: You can’t overlook negativity

The negative effects of trolling have a tremendous cost. Trolling hampers gender parity in politics and has negative mental health effects for individuals. There are also economic impacts. When trolls infiltrate online communities associated with organizations, they have the power to tarnish those brands, typically by harassing social media influencers. When organizations fail to protect their employees from online harassment, they can be at risk of lawsuits. A recent example: the two New Zealand COVID experts who were trolled mercilessly during the pandemic. They are now suing their university employer for failing to protect them from the abuse.

3: Optimism is prevailing

Awareness of online toxicity is growing, but many of those in the thick of it refuse to accept bad behaviour as inevitable. In conducting their own research into the issue, Cuthbertson and her business partners have interviewed all kinds of people with a vested interest in solving this problem. Even those on the frontlines, such as social media influencers, are hopeful. “There’s this optimism we’ve found in people,” she says. “Even people with the clearest sense of the problem, who are thinking a lot about what to do about it, think change is possible.” 

4: You can’t make a difference by holding out 

Being the founder of a startup is a bit like finding a secret underground lake and trying to convince people to see your amazing discovery. “That’s the thing about innovation,” she says. “You have to be so relentless about helping others see what you see.” It can be tempting to keep your cards close to your chest and safe from competitors, but this is the wrong impulse, says Cuthbertson. You can’t make a difference if you withhold what you find. “The whole idea of abundance is, if I’m ultimately trying to make the world better, why would I keep that a secret?”

5: It’s hard work, but it’s worth it

When it comes to running an AI startup, the difficulty level grows as you go. It’s a bit like climbing stairs, Cuthbertson says. “When you’re on the 10th stair, you don’t think back to the third and remember it being the hardest.” But she is prepared to keep levelling up. “I think of all the different roles I’ve had before and how each of them didn’t feel quite right,” she says. “This role feels exactly right, and I think it’s precisely because there’s always a new challenge.”

We at New Trail welcome your comments. Robust debate and criticism are encouraged, provided it is respectful. We reserve the right to reject comments, images or links that attack ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation; that include offensive language, threats, spam; are fraudulent or defamatory; infringe on copyright or trademarks; and that just generally aren’t very nice. Discussion is monitored and violation of these guidelines will result in comments being disabled.

Latest Stories