Ashok Goel, a professor in computing at Georgia Tech, started using an artificial intelligence teaching assistant in the online Q&A forums for one of his classes last fall. The TA named Jill performed so well that the students didn’t recognize a difference between her and the rest of the eight TAs performing the same tasks.
Jill, however, wasn’t a real person.
Georgia Tech Professor Ashok Goel teaches Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence (KBAI) twice a year, a required subject of the University’s online MSc in Computer Science program. Goel estimates that each semester he offered the course, over 300 students posts about 10,000 messages in the online course board. The huge workload became too much to handle for the professor and his eight teaching assistants. Therefore, Professor Goel hired one more assistant.
Its full name was Jill Watson, originating from the well-known IBM Watson platform that beat humans in Jeopardy! some five years ago, writes Dan Bean of the Inverse. As Professor Goel notes, the increasing number of students led to more questions, but the number of different inquiries did not change significantly. Most of the questions asked had to do with the final exam, the course logistics, curriculum, etc. Although their answers were simple and straightforward, they still required some response time:
“The world is full of online classes, and they’re plagued with low retention rates. 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.”
Therefore, Goel and his team established a system that was able to respond to that sort of questions that cropped up over and over again, and then they released it onto the online course platform. Professor Goel and his collaborators decided not to alert students to the artificial nature of their ninth teaching assistant, notes Jacob Brogan of the Future Tense.
During the test period with real students queries in January, Jill’s answers were not refined enough, so the professor had to polish them. By the end of the semester, Jill’s answering success rate increased to 97 percent, confirmed Jason Maderer of the Georgia Tech’s News Center.
On April 26, the professor finally revealed the truth about the ninth TA to his students. The students had not suspected anything about Jill’s real identity so far, so they were “flabbergasted” and “mind-blown” to learn its true nature.
As Gizmodo’s George Dvorsky notes, “it’s upsetting to hear that bots could replace yet another job.” However, Dvorsky also added that Jill could be used to eliminate tedious labor. Automating part of the teaching work will give the educators free time to focus on more complex technical or philosophical issues.
Jill Watson may serve as an example of the future of artificial intelligence in higher education. Despite the concerns about A.I. and job loss, computers may function as helping hands — but it remains unlikely that they can completely replace the human element in industries such as university-level education.