When a 13-year-old student recently tried to discuss the presidential election with AOL's online conversational robot SmarterChild, she became upset that the service seemed to favor John Kerry over George Bush. When she asked "Do you like George W. Bush?" the robot answered, "I'm a Kerry supporter myself." When she typed, "George Bush is awesome" the program replied, "George W. Bush is way uncool."
What the student didn't know is the robot was programmed to form opinions based on the aggregate views of users, so the bias came through a majority who expressed favorable thoughts about Kerry. While SmarterChild does not express opinions on profane or sex-related subjects (though it replies negatively about drugs and terrorism), it has since been reprogrammed to be politically neutral.
SmarterChild is among a growing number of online chat robots or "bots"--sometimes called agents--that dispense information through simulating human conversation. Users send instant message comments or questions, and SmarterChild responds with content from its database that includes library resources and information on weather, sports and movies. Ask which country has the largest population and the bot reports the data for China. Ask where a current film is playing and it displays show times for local theaters. These robots are innovative new ways for students to access online information.
Similarly, in California the South Orange Community College District offers the conversational robot MySiteAgent for high school students and their families to learn about Saddleback and Irvine Valley colleges. The bot answers interactive questions about programs, requirements, schedules, athletic teams, and when and how to apply. Applications Project Manager Jim Gaston says developing the interface was challenging since there are variations on how people ask for information, and many also experiment to see how the agent responds to profanity and flirting. More than 3,000 individuals have tried the agent since it went online last October, and the group is still working on letting people know it's available.
Several corporations, including Comcast, Nike and Verizon, are experimenting with conversational robots to deliver service information. Some hardware and software companies even staff online help desks with bots. In addition, while most chat bots are text based, others such as Alice, available through 123-bots, and Cybelle, at Agentland, are on-screen characters that move and gesture, and some can speak audibly.
But there are hundreds of other types of online robots beyond conversational robots. These include search bots that retrieve specialized resources such as music and images, surf bots that include spyware detectors and pop-up killers, monitor agents that inform users when targeted sites are changed, newsbots that report specific types of stories, reminder bots that track important dates, and shopping bots that compare prices on almost anything you want to buy. Many bots are fee-based, though others such as shopping.com are free.
Bringing Bots to School
While online robots have strong educational applications, there are also bots being developed specifically for K-12 that will teach, tutor, test and even grade essays. These include programs such as Vantage Learning's MY Access where students submit essays via the Internet and receive immediate feedback, and Turnitin.com that detects online plagiarism.
One of the ISTE National Educational Technology Standards specifies that high school students investigate and apply intelligent agents in real-world situations. While many districts have adopted those standards, few link district sites to useful examples that are pertinent to staff and students. Online robots are part of our future and should also be part of our educational present.
Odvard Egil Dyrli, firstname.lastname@example.org, is senior editor and emeritus professor of education at the Univ. of Connecticut.