These graduate students had no idea their teaching assistant was a robot

'Jill Watson' now answers students' questions with 97 percent certainty

On the Internet, "nobody knows you're a dog," as the old meme goes, and today, the same can increasingly be said of robots.

There are already scheduling robots that are virtually indistinguishable from humans, and recently students at the Georgia Institute of Technology learned that "Jill Watson" -- a teaching assistant they had relied upon all semester -- was in fact artificially intelligent.

“The world is full of online classes, and they’re plagued with low retention rates,” said Ashok Goel, a Georgia Tech professor who teaches a class entitled Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence. “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.”

The class is a core requirement of Georgia Tech’s online master’s program in computer science, and it tends to draw a lot of questions from students. It's offered every semester, and each time, the 300 or so students enrolled post roughly 10,000 messages in the course's online forums, Goel estimates.

That volume has often overwhelmed Goel and his eight teaching assistants, so this time, he added a ninth: Jill.

Jill is a virtual TA, and -- as her name suggests -- she's implemented on IBM’s Watson platform. Goel and his team of graduate students started to build Jill last year, including training her on the roughly 40,000 questions that had been asked in the KBAI class since it was first offered in fall 2014.

“One of the secrets of online classes is that the number of questions increases if you have more students, but the number of different questions doesn’t really go up,” Goel said. “Students tend to ask the same questions over and over again.”

Jill started work as a TA in January, but she wasn’t very good for the first few weeks, often giving odd and irrelevant answers. Her responses were posted in a forum that wasn’t visible to students.

“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, on one occasion, 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.

Further tweaking ensued, and today Jill can answer questions with 97 percent certainty. Initially, the human TAs would upload her successful responses to the students, but by the end of March, Jill didn’t need any assistance: She wrote to the class directly if she was 97 percent positive her answer was correct.

The big reveal didn't happen until late April, when Goel informed his AI students that they had actually been interacting with a bot all semester. One reportedly said her mind was "blown." Since then some students have organized an alumni forum to learn about new developments with Jill after the class ends; another group has launched an open-source project to replicate her.

Next semester, Jill will return with a new name and a new goal: to answer 40 percent of all class questions by the end of the year.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags education

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Katherine Noyes

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?