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When You're Not Quite Sure If Your Teacher Is Human

Sam Rowe for NPR

A couple of years ago, Ashok Goel was overwhelmed by the number of questions his students were asking in his course on artificial intelligence.

Goel teaches computer science at Georgia Tech, sometimes to large classes, where students can ask thousands of questions online in a discussion forum.

With a limited number of teaching assistants, or TAs, many of those questions weren't getting answered in time. So, Goel came up with a plan: make an artificial intelligence "teaching assistant" that could answer some of students' frequently asked questions.

In 2015 he built Jill Watson, his AI TA — named after one of the IBM founders, Thomas J. Watson.

Jill performed well that first year, alleviating the amount of work on Goel and his teaching assistants.

And, something else happened. Goel says using AI, in a course about AI, caught students by surprise. "They had been interacting with the TA all of this time, and you sort of assume that it's a human."

His human TAs, usually graduate students, used fake names in the online discussion forum and didn't attend class. So, just like Jill, they were totally anonymous.

Last semester, Goel says only a handful of students could tell when they were interacting with a human TA or an artificial TA.

"It's kind of fun trying to guess who's who." The whole thing became a game for Christopher Cassion after he saw a teaching assistant correctly answer a student's question, but quoting material from a previous semester.

"His reply was correct, but he quoted something that was nowhere to be found," Cassion says. "I don't know if the quote came up by mistake or if he generated the answer."

Same thing this semester — students have even started a poll to vote on who they think is real and who they think is AI. "Some of their guesses are right, some are not," says Goel. "I'm not going to tell them until the end of the semester."

He says his artificial intelligence teaching assistants are getting smarter by the day, engaging with students in longer discussions online.

"Raising Jill is like raising a young child," Goel says. "Initially when your child is very, very young, she just remembers all kinds of things she has heard from you, but she doesn't understand it."

He says the newest version of Jill now understands concepts. Eventually he wants to export these artificial teachers to countries like India to try to boost literacy rates.

But he wants to make this clear: The goal is definitely not to put teachers, like himself, out of work.

Copyright 2017 WABE 90.1

Tasnim Shamma joined WABE 90.1 FM as a reporter in November 2014. She comes to Atlanta from Charlotte, where she spent more than two years at the NPR member station WFAE.