The TA is online

The last week of July.  For residents of Augusta, Georgia, two things are absolutely certain during this time of the year.  First, the dog days of summer are in full force with a good old-fashioned Southern layer of humidity covering the region like a blanket.  Second, school is about to begin.

Yes, isn’t it ridiculous to talking about the start of school when temperature is so high no three-ring binder could possibly stand up to the heat.  But there it is.  That’s the hand we’ve been dealt.

While the start of school is a time-honored tradition, something different awaits the group of rising college freshmen.  By all observations, nothing will appear out of ordinary.  However, these college freshmen should keep an eye out for a teaching assistant named Jill Watson.

Jill Watson was a teaching assistant last spring for Georgia Tech professor, Dr. Ashok Goel.  She was one of nine assistants for the online class of 300 students.  Jill interacted with students through the online forum, reminding students of due dates and posting questions to spark conversations.  By all accounts, Jill seemed like a normal 20-something Ph.D. student.

However, Jill is not the typical graduate student.  As a matter of fact, Jill is not a student at all.  You see, Dr. Goel is a professor of computer science, and his class covers the subject of Knowledge-Based Artificial Intelligence.

Jill is an AI – a virtual teaching assistant developed using technologies from IBM’s Watson platform.

The idea for Jill originated due to workload faced by the teaching assistants.  The students for the class generate 10,000 different posts in the online forum.  According to Dr. Goel, the teaching assistants were getting bogged down answering routine questions.  Dr. Goel created Jill to address the easy questions so the teaching assistants could focus on the more difficult or philosophical questions.

The situation is very familiar for those organizations that provide online learning.

“The world is full of online classes, and they’re plagued with low retention rates,” Dr. Goel said. “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.”

Before Jill could help students, she had to be trained.  Using the 40,000 posts from previous classes, Jill learned how to respond to questions such as, “Where do I find the next assignment?” and “When is the homework due?”  In order to maintain the confidence of the students, Jill needed to respond correctly and sound just like a human teaching assistant.  Through trial and error, and a number of programmatic tweaks, Jill’s answers became good enough.

If Jill determines that she is 97% confident in her answer, she will respond to her question.  Dr. Goel believes that Jill will be able to address 40% of all requests by the end of the year.

Jill will be back at Georgia Tech this fall assisting Dr. Goel, although she will likely change her name in order to keep the students guessing.  No doubt that over time, she will pick up some additional courses.

Now this is the point in the article where some folks would start talking trash about artificial intelligence.  I’m not going to do that.  I think any technology that automates and eliminates boring and repetitive tasks is a good thing.  Like all new tech, we’ve got to see if AI finds a place in our society.

So please keep all your horror stories about Skynet and the Matrix to yourself.  Artificial Intelligence doesn’t have to lead to the destruction of mankind.  For instance, C-3PO was built by Darth Vader himself.  That bucket of bolts turned out just fine.


Happy Birthday to Me

Ah, the advantages of a summertime birthday….That’s probably something you might not expect to hear.  I can attest from experience that most folks gloss over summertime birthdays.  Honestly, I can’t blame them.  After all, it’s summer!

But that’s why Leo’s were born in the summer.  We can handle it.  Fun, adventurous, playful – Leo’s share all the characteristics that make summer so great.  Who needs a special day to celebrate when every day is a celebration?

Practically speaking, a summertime birthday provides quite a few distinct advantages.  The timing, of course, is impeccable.  Since summer birthdays are completely out of phase with Christmas, the “present gap” is minimized.  To think that some kids have to wait nine or ten months between their birthday and Christmas, well, that’s just unbearable.

The smaller present gap also yields a subtle side effect – minimizing the gift “hold back.”  Kids, don’t doubt me on this.  Every parent holds back presents if they know another gift-worthy event is approaching.  If your birthday is only a couple of months away from another major celebration, you’ve experienced the hold back.

Summertime toys are always the best.  Hiking, camping, biking, fishing – really, do I need to continue?  Now granted, I understand that snowmobiles, ice fishing and electric socks provide a fair amount of enjoyment.  However, I’m of the opinion that the combination of a 4-wheeler, a gas grill and flip-flops provides a superior experience.

One problem does exist with summertime birthdays.  This problem becomes more pronounced as you get older.  The price of those summer toys increases.  I mean, significantly more expensive.  By the time you reach adulthood, the prices begin to reach some quite disturbing levels.

Needless to say, these astronomical prices decrease the amount of your celebratory bounty.  Somewhere between the ages of 25 and 30, you discover that you’re buying all the cool stuff for yourself.  Not long after that, you realize that the only person that is still sending you a gift is your grandmother.

But don’t worry, it’s a nice card.  (No money, though.  Sorry.)

Fortunately, I’m here to point out a few great summertime presents for you to share with the Leo’s in your life.  As it turns out, a number of affordable options (less than $50) are available.  Please feel free to purchase one (or more) of these great gifts for a loving, caring and most importantly, deserving, family member.

  • Everybody needs a drone, and the perfect starter drone is the AUKEY Mini Drone.  It’s only a couple of inches square, and at 3.2 ounces, it’s well under the FAA registration limit.  No GPS, no camera – just a lot of drone flying fun!
  • Every great summer comes with great music, but it’s better if you can take that music with you.  The JBL Flip 3 portable Bluetooth speaker connects with your smartphone to play music anywhere – including the pool.
  • Being outside doesn’t mean being out of touch.  At least, it doesn’t if you can keep your phone charged.  The Anker PowerCore 20100 portable charger provides enough juice to charge your iPhone 7 times!
  • A good tactical flashlight is always useful.  The new generation of LED flashlights is very bright.  Hundreds of brands exist, but something like the Saitec 878 CREE XM-L T6 could be very useful.

I have no doubt that gifts such as these will be received with great enthusiasm.  Just be sure to wrap the present with lots of love!