Teaching Assistant Of The Year?

Image: Google Research Blog

Dr. Roey Tzezana is a futurist, a Futures Studies researcher with a PhD in nano-technology, and an author based in Providence, RI. He enjoys delving into the mysteries of foresight, wild cards (black swans), and emerging and disruptive technologies. He writes regularly at his website Curating the Future where this story first appeared.

“You want to order another pizza?” I suggested.

Eric just shook his head. Something was obviously bothering him, and not even Flatbread Company’s pizza (quite possibly the best pizza in the known universe, or in Rhose Island) could provide him with some peace of mind.

“It’s the bot.” He finally erupted at me. “That damned bot. It’s going to take over my job.”

“You’re a teaching assistant.” I reminded him. “It’s not a real job. You barely have enough money to eat.”

“Well, it’s some kind of a job, at least.” He said bitterly. “And soon it’ll be gone too. I just heard that in Georgia’s Technological Institute they actually managed to have a bot – an artificial intelligence – perform as a teaching assistant, and no one noticed anything strange!”

“Yeah, I remember.” I remembered. “It happened in the last semester. What was the bot’s name again?”

“It’s Jill.” He said. “Jill Watson. It’s based on the same Watson AI engine that IBM developed a few years ago. That Watson can already have debates about current issues, conduct scientific literature reviews, and even provide legal consultation. And now it can even assist students just like a human teaching assistant, and they don’t even note the difference!”

“How can that be?” I tried to understand.

“It all happened in a course about AI, that Prof. Ashok Goel gave in Georgia Tech.” He explained. “Goel realized that the teaching assistants in the course were swamped with questions from students, so he decided to train an artificial intelligence that would help the teaching assistants. The AI went over 40,000 questions, answers and comments written by students and teaching assistants in the course’s forum, and was trained to similarly answer new questions.”

“So how well did it go?” I asked.

“Wonderful. Just wonderful.” He sighed. “The AI, masquerading as Jill Watson, answered students’ questions throughout the semester, and nobody realized that there’s not a human being behind the username. Some students even wanted to nominate ‘her’ as an outstanding teaching assistant.”

“Well, where’s the harm in that?” I asked. “After all, she did lower the work volume for all the human teaching assistants, and the students obviously feel fine about that. So who cares?”

He sent a dirty look my way. “I care – the one who needs a job, even a horrible one like this, to live.” He said. “Just think about it: in a few years, when every course is managed by a bunch of AIs, there won’t be as many jobs open for human teaching assistants. Or maybe not even for teachers!”

“You need to think about this differently.” I advised him. “The positive side is that there’s still place for human teaching assistants, as long as they know how to work with the automated ones. After all, even the best AI in the world, at the moment, doesn’t know how to answer all the questions. There’s still a place for human common sense. So there’s definitely going to be a place for the human teaching assistant, but he’ll just have to be the best as what he does: he’ll need to operate several automated assistants at the same time that will handle the routine questions, and will pass to him only the most bizarre and complex questions; He’ll need to know how to work with computers and AI, but also to have good social skills to solve difficult situations for students; And he’ll need to be reliable enough to do all of the above proficiently over time. So yes, lots of people are going to compete for this one job, but I’m sure you can succeed at it!”

Eric didn’t look convinced. Quite honestly, I wasn’t either.

“Well,” I tried, “you can always switch occupations. For example, you can become a psychologist…”

“There are already companies that provide psychological services on the internet, using text messages.” He said. “Turns out it’s really going well for the patients. You want to bet bots can do this too in a few years? So get ready to wave bye-bye at many of the human psychologists out there.”

“Or maybe you could become an author and write novels…” I tried to continue.

“An AI managed to write a novel this year, and it passed the first round in a Japanese literary competition.” He stated.

“Or write political speeches…”

“Computers do that too.”

“Ok, fine!” I said. “So just sell flowers or something!”

“Facebook is now opening a new bot service, so that people can open an online conversation with them, and order food, flowers and other products.” He said with frustration. “So you see? Nothing left for humans like us.”

“Well,” I thought hard. “There must be some things left for us to do. Like, you see that girl over there at the end of the bar? Cute, isn’t she? Did you notice she was looking at your for the last hour?”

He followed my eyes. “Yes.” He said, and I could hear the gears start turning in his head.

“Think about it.” I continued. “She’s probably interested in you, but doesn’t know how to approach.”

He thought about it. “I bet she doesn’t know what to say to me.”

I nodded.

“She doesn’t know how best to attract my attention.” He went on.

“That’s right!” I said.

“She needs help!” He decided. “And I’m just the guy who can help her. Help everyone!”

He stood up resolutely and went for the exit.

“Where are you going?” I called after him. “She’s right here!”

He turned back to me, and I winced at the sight of his glowing eyes – the sure sign of an engineer at work.

“This problem can definitely be solved using a bot.” He said, and went outside. I could barely hear his muffled voice carrying on behind the door. “And I’m about to do just that!”

I went back to my seat, and raised my glass in what I hoped was a comforting salute to the girl on the other side of the bar. She may not realize it quite yet, but soon bots will be able to replace human beings in yet another role.