Presence in higher education: Our new digital colleagues and friends

[Although it doesn’t uses the terminology of presence, this essay from Inside Higher Ed is all about the evolution of technologies designed to evoke medium-as-social-actor presence and how they can be applied in the context of higher education.  –Matthew]

[Image: Cecilia Santiago-González, left, assistant vice president for strategic initiatives for student success, left, and communications specialist Zoe Lance are managers of Billy Chat, an artificial intelligence text messaging bot for students at Cal Poly Pomona. Source: “Artificial intelligence meets real friendship: College students are bonding with robots,” Los Angeles Times. Credit: Irfan Khan]

Our New Digital Colleagues and Friends

By Ray Schroeder
March 25, 2021

There is an intriguing anthropomorphic trend underway to apply human attributes and attitudes to artificial intelligence-driven chat bots and assorted personal assistant tools.

This is not unique in the history of humans. We tend to assign human attributes and names to tools and conveyances. We all have known over the years individuals who have given their automobiles and other devices human names. However, today’s trend is different in significant ways. Most notably, today’s devices can “talk” back; they can respond in intelligent and personalized ways.

Alexa and the Google Assistant apps can address you personally, by responding to queries with your name, acknowledging your preferences while they remind you of your schedule. Both are able to conduct internet searches, control other IoT devices and review your calendar commitments. Of course, a variety of voices can be chosen for your digital companion. Google Assistant can carry on a conversation:

“If you ask, ‘Hey Google, want to chat?’ she’ll cheerfully agree, and if you encourage her (‘what do you want to talk about?’) she’ll suggest topics of discussion. For example, Google Assistant offered to reveal her secret crush (Jarvis from The Avengers, she told me), and then she asked if I wanted to hear ‘something weird’ (such as the fact that bees have two stomachs). Or you could ask Assistant [if] she wants to do something fun, and she’ll tick off some options.”

Alexa has “her” own tricks, such as playing trivia games and performing a litany of tasks when addressed with a simple “good morning” or responding in kind to a whisper:

“From a purely practical standpoint, Alexa’s Whisper Mode, which makes Alexa whisper back to you when you whisper to her, is handy for keeping Alexa from waking other household members when you ask her a question in the wee hours. But I’ve found Alexa’s whispered responses to be oddly calming and therapeutic, particularly after reading a bad headline about current events. Sounds kinda weird, right? Perhaps, but it works for me.”

Of course, deep learning applications in artificial intelligence go much further than merely preprogrammed responses to commands in predictable ways. Increasingly, AI is utilized for triage in diagnoses of medical conditions — learning new symptoms and associated maladies; reading X-rays; even “knowing” when to call in a specialist to confirm or assess a diagnosis when the algorithm is less certain.

Early on, artificial intelligence brought smart robotics to replace assembly line workers in manufacturing. Now, AI is bringing about radical changes in professions, including the management, medical, accounting and legal fields.

Higher education is not immune to the AI revolution. In this COVID-19 era, chat bots powered by AI have come to the aid of students and others who are in need of information, referrals and help. Utilizing deep learning functions, artificially intelligent bots can learn from questions posed and subsequent answers can be given if such questions arise again. The bot improves with most every new exchange, enhancing the relevancy and accuracy of responses.

Such learning enables the chat bots over time to know just what to say when the human confides personal information or raises ambiguous questions. When the pandemic hit campuses, some chat bots changed their tone to meet the less trivial questions of students:

“Beginning in the spring of 2020, students’ relationship with their texting buddies shifted. More began to share concerns above and beyond school — including about the pandemic, racial injustice and the presidential election, Magliozzi said. In turn, said Jill Leafstedt, associate vice provost for innovation and faculty development at Cal State Channel Islands, ‘our bot took on a different personality.’ Ekhobot became an empathetic friend, available at all hours to answer students’ questions, let them vent or cheer them on. It asked students what song was helping them get through the pandemic and used the responses to create a Spotify playlist of ‘quarantunes.’”

Jill Watson, now 5 years old, is the AI teaching assistant created by Georgia Tech professor Ashok Goel. Responding to text-based discussion questions from online students, Jill was often mistaken by students for a human TA. For these past five years, the AI virtual teaching assistant has been “learning,” refining and revising, while spin-offs have been created to facilitate student group work and discussion.

Even further human-AI engagement is advancing through the use of robots. “Eye contact is a key to establishing a connection, and teachers use it often to encourage participation. But can a robot do this too? Can it draw a response simply by making ‘eye’ contact, even with people who are less inclined to speak up? A recent study suggests that it can.”

While text, voice and even a robot’s gaze can elicit human engagement with algorithms, research continues to advance in direct brain computer interfaces. Elon Musk’s Neuralink venture is experimenting with micron-width threads that connect directly into the brain to allow users to control and interact with AI without voice or text. Neuralink plans to enable users, by merely thinking, to engage intelligent devices. Meanwhile, Facebook is developing a wristband that “uses electromyography (EMG) to interpret electrical activity from motor nerves as they send information from the brain to the hand. The company says the device, as yet unnamed, would let you navigate augmented-reality menus by just thinking about moving your finger to scroll.”

How can we best utilize the infinite patience, the ever-enhancing deep learning knowledge bases and the multimode communication facility of intelligent applications to further advance our mission? Adaptive learning is but a first step. With the rapid deployment of these AI technologies, one wonders how different higher education might look in the near future. Will these machine abilities replace important aspects of human-delivered teaching, tutoring, student support, counseling and other roles in a more economical, responsive, reliable and effective way?

Are you monitoring these developments and considering the implications for the next year or two? Is your institution upskilling, reskilling and preparing to lead these changes to welcome our new digital colleagues and friends?


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