It’s usually a shock to the system when someone transitions to a higher level of education. With a more competitive atmosphere and higher student-faculty ratio, it’s easy for basic questions to go unanswered, and connections to professors — and subjects — to be lost.
But Ashok Goel, instructor of the Knowledge Based Artificial Intelligence masters-level course at Georgia Tech, refused to let that happen to his students. And, at the same time, he gave them an object lesson about the capabilities of the sorts of artificial intelligence they were studying.
Goel and his eight teaching assistants created a program to answer the most common questions students posted on the KBAI class forum, and disguised the program with the human name Jill Watson. Jill, presented to the class as the ninth TA, interacted with the students online for the rest of the semester. While a few students suspected something, no one fully realized she was a bot until Goel and team announced it at the end of term!
They had to start her off slowly, as she was excellent at recognizing content, but terrible at context:
“‘Initially her answers weren’t good enough because she would get stuck on keywords,’ said Lalith Polepeddi, one of the graduate students who co-developed the virtual TA. ‘For example, a student asked about organizing a meet-up to go over video lessons with others, and Jill gave an answer referencing a textbook that could supplement the video lessons — same keywords — but different context. […]’
After some tinkering by the research team, Jill found her groove and soon was answering questions with 97 percent certainty. When she did, the human TAs would upload her responses to the students. By the end of March, Jill didn’t need any assistance: She wrote the class directly if she was 97 percent positive her answer was correct.”
In April, when Goel and the other TAs revealed all, the students loved it — subsequently forming alumni groups to keep studying Jill, and to attempt to recreate her. Thanks to Jill’s success, the KBAI class will have another robo-TA next year (under a different name, of course!), to help instruct the students in more ways than one.