When a group of IBM India employees, including data scientists and communication experts, volunteered to work on a technology solution that could help students learn the English language, the challenge was figuring out what that solution would be. After months of brainstorming, the team started working on “Professor Idiom”, an AI-powered Chatbot developed for the Abheda Foundation, a Kolkata-based NGO.
“When we thought about creating a chatbot, the problem was solving an issue, because if you want to talk to an open chatbot, it could be very difficult to build,” Sourav Mallik, AI – IBM India volunteer and data scientist, says indianexpress.com In an interview. “So we decided to go ahead with the idioms.”
Mallik, who led the project, says he and his team had thought of multiple ways to design a solution that teaches students the English language, especially those in semi-urban and rural areas.
During the initial phase of the project, there were discussions about creating videos to be distributed via WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, considering the reach of both platforms in India. The team also thought about developing an app, but decided against it because the common consensus was that the app would divert attention and focus rather than engage students within the 10-16 year age group.
Discussions to develop an artificial intelligence-based chatbot began in 2019, when the Abheda Foundation, an NGO run by a group of retired IT professionals who provide digital education to students from rural Bengal, approached IBM to incorporate artificial intelligence. and machine learning capabilities in the next version of the application.
Developing an AI-powered conversational chatbot seemed logical, Mallik says. Chatbots are essentially computer programs that mimic human conversations using artificial intelligence or AI. With “Professor Idiom”, a student can send a chat asking for the meaning of a language in their local language and the bot will respond with the answer in English. “When we were developing a chatbot, we were actually developing a person. The character here was Professor Idiom, a witty teacher who likes to joke around and tells a good story, ”Mallik explains.
“With the chatbot, we could continue a conversation for 10 to 15 minutes to find out how well a student can converse in English,” Mallik said. He says that a chatbot is a better way to learn the English language as you have the freedom to express your missing feelings when using English teaching apps or watching video tutorials.
How long does it take to develop the AI-based chatbot? “It took us five weeks to get the first draft ready,” Mallik says, adding that the hardest part was developing the content, which took three to four months. Although it is a beta version, for now, students can access “Professor Idiom” by activating “Google Assistant” on their Android devices. There are plans to make the chatbot available to larger users after the production launch, but for now, Abheda Foundation students in rural Bengal use the ‘teacher’s language’ extensively.
As AI continues to advance, so will the chatbot’s ability to improve conversations. Mallik and his team are in the process of collecting data and this will help not only monitor student progress but also improve the chatbot. About 90 percent of the 200 Abheda Foundation students are using “Professor Idiom,” and this small number, Mallik says, makes it easier to analyze the data and keep improving the AI-powered chatbot.
Despite advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, Mallik says AI will not replace teachers in schools. “It is not possible,” he says. “The best way is a semi-supervisory model.”
“Even with the bot, you can’t get the expressions or see if that particular student is able to understand or not. But if you are really teaching someone, you have those qualities to understand if a student is grasping the knowledge, ”explains Mallik.