IBM, U. of Michigan Creating Chatty Computer

By Darryl K. Taft  |  Posted 2016-01-17 Print this article Print
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Emotion will be a key consideration of the system, as human interaction often turns on emotional elements. For instance, the proposed system would record its conversations with students and at any point it could hand the session over to a human. One of the researchers involved—Emily Mower Provost, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, studies emotional cues. She will work on enabling Project Sapphire to recognize when students need a real shoulder to lean on, even if they're not asking for one.

Through the partnership, eight computer science and engineering faculty members, along with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, will work with IBM scientists. Within the next couple years, they expect their system to be up and running.

IBM said the digital advisor is not meant to replace human professionals who guide students along the academic and emotional journey that is college. Once it's developed, students can choose to talk to the system for simple or routine questions, or to complement a meeting with a person.

Students might tell the system their preferences and receive course recommendations that advance them toward their degree. They could define broad career goals and get a good list of electives. They could hear an estimate of how many homework hours their class load might require, or be directed to extracurricular activities that might help them land the kind of job or graduate school placement they seek.

However, the automated academic advisor is one application of what the team envisions to be a platform technology, IBM said. Project Sapphire's resulting innovations could be embedded into cognitive systems across many industries to improve how they learn and codify human expertise, understand a user's intent and context, and deliver appropriate responses that direct conversations toward a stated goal.

"What we are building has the potential to revolutionize how we interact with our computers and other devices such as our cars and our appliances," Baveja said. "These conversational systems become cognitive advisors 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."

IBM's Hamm wrote: "The researchers will use the cognitive student advisor as a test bed to help them develop systems that can be used for many kinds of human-to-machine interactions—everything from online travel planning and shopping to IT help desks and tax advisory services."

IBM noted that the University of Michigan students are excited to work with Big Blue on a potentially groundbreaking project.

"I want to build something that will not only benefit students, but will also benefit their children," said Ananda Narayan, a University of Michigan doctoral student studying reinforcement learning. "This is the future and it is happening here at the University of Michigan."

IBM said Project Sapphire is but another step forward in IBM's history of innovation in conversational systems. Most recently, IBM added its latest dialog management capabilities to its Watson cognitive computing platform.

The University of Michigan and IBM have a history of collaboration. IBM has assisted with cognitive computing courses, worked with the university to discover new ways to apply Watson, and enabled the University of Michigan Solar Car Team to use cognitive solar forecasting technology to predict solar radiation and cloud movement during the 2015 World Solar Challenge.



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