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Can a Robot Fix Sex Ed?

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Mother Jones illustration/Emojipedia

Maura was about to go to college, and she had some questions about the birth control pill. In the week leading up to her period, the 18-year-old was used to enduring terrible migraines and cramps and feeling severely depressed—and the symptoms were getting worse. She wondered if the pill could help, but she wasn’t sure how to get it, or which version to take. Maura didn’t want her mom to think she was having sex, and she didn’t feel like she could talk to her doctor because she was worried it would get back to her parents.

Maura, who asked that we only use her first name, grew up in New Jersey, a state with comprehensive sex ed. She also wrote for Sex Etc., a magazine about sex and puberty by and for teenagers. Even someone like her, who had all the right tools at her disposal, had questions that couldn’t be answered through those channels.

In search of information, Maura went to the Planned Parenthood website, where she noticed a purple banner across the page picturing a small, rectangular blob with a smile across its navy blue face. “Psst! I’m Roo,” it read. “Have questions? Our convo is private.” She clicked on it. Soon, she was in a chatroom with a bot built by Planned Parenthood for teenagers to anonymously ask questions about sex, bodies, and relationships.

Maura started listing her symptoms to Roo: migraines, depression, cramps. “It was very much like a person was really talking to you rather than an automated machine,” she said. Roo gave Maura a list of birth control options that could work with her symptoms along with the address of the nearest Planned Parenthood clinic, where she could have a private conversation with a doctor. “It felt like a safer way to [learn about] birth control rather than talking to a real person,” she said.

Since launching in January, Roo has answered more than three million questions. Ambreen Molitor, senior director of the digital products lab at Planned Parenthood, said Maura’s situation is what Roo was meant to help with. The........

© Mother Jones