When it comes to the list of things robots can’t do, social interaction comes way on the top of the list. But for the last term, a robot has been serving as a teaching assistant (TA) at the Georgia Institute of Technology for months… and no one even realized.
A TA called Jill Watson helped with a course – a course on artificial intelligence, of course. Jill’s main tasks were responding to student emails and taking care of mundane tasks. She also got involved in forum discussions, posting short prompts and confirmations for questions.
“She was the person – well, the teaching assistant – who would remind us of due dates and post questions in the middle of the week to spark conversations,” student Jennifer Gavin told Melissa Korn at The Wallstreet Journal. “It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being.”
Apparently, the students were quite satisfied with her activity, but they didn’t know she was a robot. Fellow student Shreyas Vidyarthi declared himself “flabbergasted” at the revelation, but not everyone was surprised. Their colleague, Tyson Bailey, said he wasn’t surprised when he learned about Jill’s identify, especially given the nature of the course.
Jill was “recruited” by Ashok Goel, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech. He fed the algorithm 40,000 discussion forum posts to give it an idea of how a TA generally behaves on the class forum. The algorithm analyzes all the posts, and if it thinks it can respond to a query with more than 97 percent precision, it swoops in and answers – all powered by IBM’s Watson analytics system.
While this was just a university course, it may have a huge significance. Jill answering routine questions saved a lot of time for the course teachers, and the same could go on many other places. Plenty of forums, both educational and otherwise could benefit from having an automated response machine – it would save time for the professors/admins, and the students/users could definitely use it. I for one, welcome our new robot TAs.