College Is Hard. Iggy, Pounce, Cowboy Joe and Sunny are Here to Help.


But Mr. Goel is also looking at what else A.I. could do. Like working with sentiment analysis (it uses “the order of the words, the phrases of the words” to classify moods and personality types) to explore how virtual tools could answer a human’s emotion.

“If my sentiment is one of exasperation, how do you respond to that?” he asked. Maybe a chatbot or virtual assistant uses A.I. to have “a calming effect” in its answer or suggests, “Would you like to meet the teacher face to face?” A.I. raises new opportunities — “Can we detect a mental health issue going on? Maybe we can intervene” — as well privacy and ethics issues, said Mr. Goel.

For now, humans are still in charge on campus. But they are leaning more on A.I. Not just to get information out — but to see what comes back.

“It is a tool for listening at scale,” said Mr. Magliozzi of AdmitHub. Harried humans are “bombarded with questions, 80 percent of which can be handled by a bot,” he said. “But there are some that desperately need personal attention.”

Which is what administrators at Arizona State University found. On March 16 at 10:30 a.m. Sunny, their campus chatbot, which previously guided only first and second year students, texted all 66,800 on-campus students with a link to university Covid-19 updates.

Sunny added, “As always, I’m here to answer your questions.” Some 5,900 responded.

Most wanted to know about classes and remote access to university services, said Kevin Kovaleski, executive director of provost and enrollment services communications whose team oversees the chatbot. Also, as usual, “a large subset of questions are students sharing their feelings. That is a utility in itself.”

But he especially valued the questions Sunny could not answer. Ten students responded with worries about what to do because they faced financial or other struggles or were international students unsure whether to stay. Mr. Kovaleski said campus leaders then connected each student to a live human who could help them.

“Sunny is a very efficient way to find students who need support.”



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