• Greg Baker

The TA is online

The last week of July.  For residents of Augusta, Georgia, two things are absolutely certain during this time of the year.  First, the dog days of summer are in full force with a good old-fashioned Southern layer of humidity covering the region like a blanket.  Second, school is about to begin.

Yes, isn’t it ridiculous to talking about the start of school when temperature is so high no three-ring binder could possibly stand up to the heat.  But there it is.  That’s the hand we’ve been dealt.

While the start of school is a time-honored tradition, something different awaits the group of rising college freshmen.  By all observations, nothing will appear out of ordinary.  However, these college freshmen should keep an eye out for a teaching assistant named Jill Watson.

Jill Watson was a teaching assistant last spring for Georgia Tech professor, Dr. Ashok Goel.  She was one of nine assistants for the online class of 300 students.  Jill interacted with students through the online forum, reminding students of due dates and posting questions to spark conversations.  By all accounts, Jill seemed like a normal 20-something Ph.D. student.

However, Jill is not the typical graduate student.  As a matter of fact, Jill is not a student at all.  You see, Dr. Goel is a professor of computer science, and his class covers the subject of Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence.

Jill is an AI – a virtual teaching assistant developed using technologies from IBM’s Watson platform.

The idea for Jill originated due to workload faced by the teaching assistants.  The students for the class generate 10,000 different posts in the online forum.  According to Dr. Goel, the teaching assistants were getting bogged down answering routine questions.  Dr. Goel created Jill to address the easy questions so the teaching assistants could focus on the more difficult or philosophical questions.

The situation is very familiar for those organizations that provide online learning.

“The world is full of online classes, and they’re plagued with low retention rates,” Dr. Goel said. “One of the main reasons many students drop out is because they don’t receive enough teaching support. We created Jill as a way to provide faster answers and feedback.”

Before Jill could help students, she had to be trained.  Using the 40,000 posts from previous classes, Jill learned how to respond to questions such as, “Where do I find the next assignment?” and “When is the homework due?”  In order to maintain the confidence of the students, Jill needed to respond correctly and sound just like a human teaching assistant.  Through trial and error, and a number of programmatic tweaks, Jill’s answers became good enough.

If Jill determines that she is 97% confident in her answer, she will respond to her question.  Dr. Goel believes that Jill will be able to address 40% of all requests by the end of the year.

Jill will be back at Georgia Tech this fall assisting Dr. Goel, although she will likely change her name in order to keep the students guessing.  No doubt that over time, she will pick up some additional courses.

Now this is the point in the article where some folks would start talking trash about artificial intelligence.  I’m not going to do that.  I think any technology that automates and eliminates boring and repetitive tasks is a good thing.  Like all new tech, we’ve got to see if AI finds a place in our society.

So please keep all your horror stories about Skynet and the Matrix to yourself.  Artificial Intelligence doesn’t have to lead to the destruction of mankind.  For instance, C-3PO was built by Darth Vader himself.  That bucket of bolts turned out just fine.


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