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  1. The next frontier: After driverless cars, teacherless tuitions!

The next frontier: After driverless cars, teacherless tuitions!

What is cosine 30+ sine 30?”; “A boy has 2,500 apples more than Jon. Jon has 200 apples less than George. If George has 700 apples, how many apples are there in all?”

By: | New Delhi | Published: June 2, 2016 7:38 AM
1f Illustration by Rohnit Phore

What is cosine 30+ sine 30?”; “A boy has 2,500 apples more than Jon. Jon has 200 apples less than George. If George has 700 apples, how many apples are there in all?” Despite studying mathematics at the school and college level and having an MA in Economics, the subject still gets the better of me at times. When it comes to solving geometry or word problems, I end up faltering. The advent of blogs addressed some of these concerns, with me posting questions online and getting replies. But, yesterday, I found new friends to solve math problems for me — chatbots.

While many around the world have been using bots for chatting, getting information on weather, places to eat and booking restaurants, I decided to search for a few to answer my maths queries. I first went to Skynet-AI, an online platform to get some questions answered, and then I encountered a chatbot from Wolfram Alpha on my Telegram messenger. Skynet-AI kept me engaged, with what could qualify as light banter, and asking me about my life while also answering a few word problems. But it had limited applicability as it could only answer the word problems it knew about. Wolfram Alpha bot, on the other hand, could not just solve a wider variety of math problems, but also showed me the steps as to how it hit the answer.

Maths is just one of the subject a typical school-level student has to deal with, and there was some help available from Skynet and Wolfram. But what about the other subjects? Could bots help me with history or english? I searched online and found some chatbots on Telegram that could help me with english, offering not just dictionary and thesaurus support, but also pointing out faulty grammar and poor construction in a sentence. Though accuracy could be a concern, it was easy to overlook this given that the bots are still in the early stages of development.

Now, on to testing how competent bots could be on human history. Adding Mitsuku, a bot that won its makers the 2013 Loebner prize (an annual award given to the chatbot which the judges deem most human-like), I asked two questions: “Who was the 26th President of United States?” and “What was battle of Plassey?”

Mitsuku answered the first correctly, but was confused when it came to answering a question on Indian history. On further examination, it proved quite competent on matters related to American and British history, even providing some additional information. Skynet, on the other hand, directed me to the Wikipedia page on questions to which it didn’t know the answer. For instance, I asked it who George Washington was and then asked who Gandhi was, to which Skynet said that he was the George Washington for India while taking me to his wikipedia page.

While bots were pretty smart in answering questions, at best they could do was solve problems for elementary classes and were still a bit far from being advanced learning assistants. Researchers at MIT have been working on education bots since 2011. These can teach students about basic colours and show them how to learn or read a story book. But with more advanced bots being worked on like GeoS which can solve SAT geometry questions and Sophia, a bot developed by MIT in 2004 which can take on advanced problems, bots can certainly be trained to be helping hands for teachers across the world, especially when students and organisations are turning towards online courses and learning programmes.

Recently, a professor at the University of Georgia created a teaching assistant with the help of an artificial intelligence software without informing the students. The bot was fed with all the entries in the blog and frequently asked questions and was setup such that it answers only when it has a 97% surety. The students could not suspect whether they were interacting with a bot or a human.

Which tells me that bots may be something that could transform education in the future. For a developing country like India, bots can solve not only the demand-supply problem but also resolve the quality issues. While some firms like Vidya Next have been using bots, there are still some concerns as the technology is still at its nascent stage.

“We do not currently use chatbots and would only consider them if the technology significantly improves. We see that human supported assistance and customised responses are the most effective way to help our learners resolve issues and get back to studying faster. In fact, we’re actually experimenting with adding more human touch elements in our support of millions of online learners around the world,” said Kabir Chadha, India country manager, Coursera.

With technology evolving faster than expected and the AIs ability to learn new things. I could teach Mitsuku to say Namastey instead of Hello, bots can certainly transform the education sector in the coming years. As for the questions that I have posted , I have left them unanswered intentionally for you to go ahead ans try them.

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