A Virtual Teaching Assistant Fooled Hundreds of Students Into Thinking It Was Human

May 16, 2016 | Reece Alvarez

Artist's abstract impression of artificial intelligence
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology

Students in an artificial intelligence course at the Georgia Institute of Technology had no idea their online teaching aide was literally a virtual assistant.

As artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics become increasingly sophisticated, a wide range of jobs from farmers to surgeons seem more and more susceptible to replacement. Is it be possible that the highly personal and nuanced field of teaching could also be automated someday?

We need not wait for the future, at the Georgia Institute of Technology learning with the assistance of artificial intelligence is already happening.

Ashok Goel, a professor of computer and cognitive science at Georgia Tech decided to do a little real world experiment by using an AI teaching assistant to help field questions from his students in an online knowledge-based artificial intelligence course he teaches.

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According to a press release from Georgia Tech, each semester approximately 300 students enroll in his course, asking roughly 10,000 questions to be fielded by Goel and his eight teaching assistants.

This past semester Goel decided to add a ninth assistant, Jill Watson, a computer program based on IBM’s Watson learning technology platform.

"The world is full of online classes, and they're plagued with low retention rates," 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."

Ashok Goel in the classroom

Professor Ashok Goel of the Georgia Institute of Technology. Photo courtesy of the Georgia Institute of Technology

At first, the program had some kinks to work out.

“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 teaching assistant. “For example, a student asked about organizing a meetup 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. So we learned from mistakes like this one, and gradually made Jill smarter.”

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The computer program was based on nearly 40,000 student-generated questions Goel had received since his class started in the fall of 2014, and after some tinkering by the research team, Jill was able to answer students’ questions (through moderators) with 97 percent certainty. Soon after, the program was allowed to operate on its own and address students’ questions directly.

Goel did not reveal Jill Watson’s true nature to his students until the semester was nearly over.

According to Georgia Tech, his students were amazed, as many had never suspected the assistant was actually a computer program, and some have since organized a forum and open source project to continue developing the virtual teaching program.

However, one student had suspicions early on — this was an artificial intelligence course after all.

“I asked Dr. Goel if he was a computer in one of my first email interactions with him,” said student Tyson Bailey. "We were taking an AI course, so I had to imagine that it was possible there might be an AI lurking around."

According to Georgia Tech, Jill ended the semester able to answer many routine questions students asked and will return to the online classroom next semester, though under a different name. The goal is to have the virtual teaching assistant answer 40 percent of all questions by the end of year.

So while teachers may not have to worry about the AI takeover of their profession just yet, the replacement of teaching assistants may be just on the horizon.

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