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College students didn’t realize their professor’s assistant was actually an AI bot

It fooled students all semester.


Selena Larson


Students in an online course at the Georgia Institute of Technology were surprised to find out a teaching assistant they corresponded with all semester turned out to be a robot. 

Called Jill Watson (appropriately named after IBM’s Watson software that powers the bot), the automated assistant conversed with students about assignments, class projects, and answered questions about the class, the Wall Street Journal reports. It wasn’t until late in the semester that professor Ashok Goel revealed to students Watson wasn’t a real person.

Watson is one among a handful of TAs in Goel’s Kowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence class, an online class that welcomes students from all over the world. It’s part of Georgia Tech’s online learning programs that provide university-level classes to thousands of students via Udacity

According to Goel, TAs receive upwards of 10,000 messages each semester, and it’s easy for humans to get bogged down or be unable to reply to all the inquiries. A machine-powered AI that could handle basic questions and responses was a natural fit for the computer science class. 

“It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being,” Jennifer Gavin, a student in the program, told the Wall Street Journal.

People are using Watson-powered tech across a bevy of industries. The machine learning and analytics technology was trained to know perfect recipes, answer financial questions and conduct customer service in Spanish, and power a concierge robot at a popular hotel chain. And bots are becoming more popular ways for people to engage in customer service and answer questions as the ubiquity and accessibility of technology continues to improve.

Facebook, for instance, recently launched a chat bot feature that lets developers and Pages create bots to engage with fans and potential clients. While the interaction isn’t fully streamlined yet, people can now talk with language-learning software instead of humans via Facebook chats. 

Goel’s AI TA isn’t like the bots you might find in Messenger, though. In order to seem like a human TA, engineers trained Watson on over 40,000 posts from Piazza, a question and answer platform for students and educators. Watson only answered students’ questions if it was 97 percent confident in the answer, Goel told the Wall Street Journal. 

Having an AI secretly maintaining TA duties throughout a semester could be seen as an ethical quandary, but for this particular class it makes sense. I would imagine students in other classes who aren’t as accustomed to the normalcy of human-robot interaction might be perturbed to find out the entire semester they’ve been communicating with a bot. Next time, Goel said, he plans to alert students that at least one TA isn’t human. 

But if computer science students don’t realize when they talk to a robot, imagine how oblivious the rest of us will be when they eventually come into other spaces. 

H/T The Wall Street Journal

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