A professor built an AI bot to make teaching easier. Will it replace him someday?

Robots are not to be feared.
Robots are not to be feared.
Image: Reuters/Nir Elias
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Ashok Goel had run into a problem. As a computer science professor at Georgia Tech, he taught an online course on artificial intelligence, and its 300 students sent in thousands of questions via an online forum each semester. The sheer volume of messages overwhelmed Goel and his eight teaching assistants.

So he tried an experiment—quietly inserting some AI into the class itself.

This January, with the help of several graduate students and support from IBM’s breakthrough Watson technology, Goel built an AI chatbot that could field basic questions and relieve some of the burden on the class’s human instructors.

Named Jill Watson, the virtual “teaching assistant” drew from previous forum data to help answer many routine, technical queries about the course, such as where people could find a certain video lesson or how they could organize meet-ups with one another. The most astonishing part: Students had no idea Jill was an AI. Goel didn’t reveal that fact until the day after the class’s final exam.

“The reaction was extremely positive. I got comments like ‘mind blown’ and ‘I want to nominate Jill for outstanding TA award’,” Goel tells Quartz.

Since Georgia Tech formally announced Goel’s experiment last week, the story of Jill Watson has been described by news reports as an “epic prank,” or a professor cleverly “fooling” his students. But Jill’s success is actually a bold suggestion of how chatbots, and artificial intelligence in general, could supplement education to make it cheaper, more engaging, and available on a mass scale.

There’s a lot of fretting in the world about whether robots will eventually take professors’ jobs. We’d do better to put aside those unfounded fears and ask, instead, how technology might make them much easier.

“The way I think about it, there are seven billion people on this earth and about half of them don’t have access to good education,” Goel says. “If we can take artificial intelligence and provide those people with minimal question-answering, who knows what a difference it could make in someone’s life? If something like Jill can provide even basic support?”

Goel, who is now working to improve the chatbot and eventually launch it as a business product, says he’s been contacted by more than 50 professors around the world eager to infuse AI technology into their own courses, online or otherwise.