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Hi, compsci undergrad. See that AI robot over there? It's your advisor

University of Michigan, Big Blue in $4.5m cognitive collaboration

IBM and the University of Michigan have launched a $4.5m project to replace some human roles in education by developing a cognitive system to function as an academic adviser for undergraduate compscis and engineers.

Dubbed Project Sapphire, the collaboration will see eight computer science and engineering faculty members, along with graduate students and post-doctoral researchers from the university's Artificial Intelligence Lab, work alongside Big Blue's boffins to get a system up and running "within the next few years".

The system is unlikely to immediately make human educational professionals redundant, but will "allow researchers to explore how smart machines interact with people in goal-driven dialogues".

"Human-to-machine interactions, similar to human-to-human conversations, are rarely confined to one question and one answer," said David Nahamoo, IBM fellow and chief technologist for conversational systems, IBM Watson.

Nahamoo added: "They involve multiple turns of a conversation with responses that can be imprecise and unclear, making it difficult to simulate the human experience."

The team will be acquiring and annotating "large volumes of approved recorded human-to-human conversations between undergraduates and their advisers on topics such as course selection, career advice, extracurricular recommendations and homework resources".

These conversations will be used to train the system how to respond to forlorn hungover youngsters students, and help it "ultimately learn how to automatically navigate and successfully reply in conversations with those using the system".

Emily Mower Provost, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering at the university, will be involved. Provost's research into emotional expression and perception will contribute to Project Sapphire's ability to recognise when students need pastoral human support, even when this is not explicitly requested.

An IBM statement claimed that the AI professor "isn't meant to replace human professionals who guide students along the academic and emotional journey that is college." Instead, "once it's developed, students can choose to talk to it for simple or routine questions, or to complement a meeting with a person".

"What we are building has the potential to revolutionise how we interact with our computers and other devices such as our cars and our appliances," said Satinder Singh Baveja, professor of computer science and engineering and director of the uni's AI Lab.

"These conversational systems become cognitive advisers that can assist us in a variety of personal, professional and enterprise tasks, such as advising for personal finance, helping employees in scheduling meetings and travel arrangement, and providing technical support to customers of an enterprise," he added.

In the meantime, students might just have to settle for a quick chat with the vicar. ®

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