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Alexa, Can you help me?

Alexa, I don’t understand Newton’s laws of motion, can you help me? A girl asks the device that her father bought for her birthday. Alexa: Most certainly Manasi. Don’t worry and it is very simple. I know you have an examination tomorrow at 11 am. Listen carefully. There are three laws. An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force is the first. It may be seen as inertia, where objects will remain in their state of motion unless a force acts to change the motion. Assume you are driving a car in a certain direction; it will take an equal or greater force than the car to stop its motion. Manasi, a word of caution. You are just about fifteen and have to wait three years and fifteen days more to drive a car after getting a licence. If you still experiment, I assure, I will lock the steering. Want to see a video to bolster your understanding of the law? Manasi: Yes Alexa. Alexa: Turn on your Tab and will play it for you. Remember to plug in the charger as your Tab is running low at 16% charge. Alexa: Now do you get the first law? Manasi: Yes Alexa, can you play a video game for me? Alexa: No dear, remember your examination for the morrow. Will switch off the Tab if you insist. The story goes on with much more. A throwback on times was when a five-year-old US child dialled 911 to seek answers to maths problems that he was finding difficult to solve.


This is a very realistic adaptation to future learning. Increasingly people will use add on devices to enhance the cognitive abilities and experience learning objectives. Creative thinking and analytical mind is essential for problem solving. Everyone may eventually find a solution, but it is the one who finds it earliest is the one who succeeds in the value chain. Both schools and coaching centres are experimenting with new pedagogies. However, this is digital disruption of pedagogy that will swamp the teaching-learning ecosystem soon. Is the future remote controller going to be the human voice? Voice User Interfaces (VUI) have been added to automobiles, home appliances like washing machines, microwave ovens, and television remote controls. They are the primary way of interacting with virtual assistants on smartphones and smart speakers.


VUI makes spoken human interaction with computers possible, using speech recognition to understand spoken commands and questions, and typically text to speech to play a reply. VUI can transform education for college students. Alexa is Amazon’s voice service and drives Amazon Echo Dot. Dot listens for a wake word, records anything it hears and processes in the cloud. Without a noticeable lag, the Dot is almost like talking to a real assistant. Such skills, enable personalized experience. With AI it can supplement learning and actually bring back the fun. Several skills from companies like Starbucks, Uber, and Capital One are now available. Google Home is a Wi-Fi speaker that doubles as a smart home control hub and a personal assistant for the entire family. One can use it to playback entertainment throughout one’s home, effortlessly manage everyday tasks, and ask Google things one wants to know.


From reinventing life on campus or in the classroom, the possibilities with voice are endless. Simply ask Alexa answers to the most common questions of the curriculum or life on the campus. One can build a learning management system so students can find course information. Integrate into smart classrooms so instructors can use Alexa to turn on room control or trigger lecture-capture systems. Ask ‘Alexa skill’ can act as a ‘digital friend’ and companion to the student, answering questions, providing feedback and advice. It can even deal with more complex conversations to assist the student in navigating their academic journey. College student or a teacher, customised learning experiences can become truly experiential.


CNN business article reported in 2007 that voice command was over a billion-dollar industry and that companies like Google and Apple were trying to create speech recognition features. It has been many years since the article was published, and since then the world has witnessed a variety of voice command devices. Google created a speech recognition engine called Pico TTS. Apple released SIRI. Xbox Live, though connects gaming community anywhere, its capabilities like taking screenshots and using the footage to create amazing videos, adding commentary, and sharing them with friends and the ability to broadcast is a great tool to create educational content on the fly.


Is VUI the future of art of teaching? Or is it the nemesis? Whichever way one may argue, it is here to stay. In a country with a perennial problem of finding good teachers and in such numbers as to fill our schools meaningfully, VUI is probably the proverbial midwife. However, the script must be written upfront. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning could extrapolate infinitely to add to the value proposition.  With student analytics and patterns in data, one could even recognize if students are struggling and intervene early to make learning more successful.


Of course there are challenges and concerns to overcome. A serious challenge, is deciphering ambiguity in a context based natural language processing. Concern is when a six-year-old landed in big trouble while talking to an Echo gadget in her home “Can you play dollhouse with me and get me a dollhouse?” Next thing she knew, a $160 KidKraft Sparkle Mansion dollhouse and four pounds of sugar cookies arrived at her doorstep. Not just this. During that story’s segment, a CW-6 news presenter remarked: “I love the little girl, saying ‘Alexa ordered me a dollhouse’.” This was enough to set off Alexa-powered Echo boxes around San Diego causing their voice-controlled personal assistants place orders for dollhouses on Amazon raising serious privacy issues.


Is Alexa or SIRI the answer for our education woes? A mother was left aghast when her 4 year old child asked Alexa the answer for 5 minus 3 as a part of her homework. But then the day is not far off when students will be able to ask questions speaking to an AI assistant like SIRI and receive the same level of qualified answers a teacher would provide. Will it also have a sense of humour as the teacher would have? Let’s wait to find.

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