Editor’s note: This story on how artificial intelligence is about to change the educational experience at Penn State is the first of a four-part series running Sunday through Wednesday.
Lawrence Wu peers into the screen, its blue hue throwing light off his glasses. Windows pop out of the haze like islands, with each twitch of his fingers bringing another to life. The rain of keystrokes bursts an archipelago of them into being. They glow languidly in the dimmed room.
As his hands hover over them, they shift and slide and settle into place. Words appear in different languages. Japanese. Mandarin. English. The characters are different, but made of the same strokes. Kind of like the people who use them, he says.
For the moment, he’s submerged in another world.
Wu, 21, a senior studying information sciences and technology at Penn State, is a bit young to play demigod. But his problem, the university’s problem, is an ivory Tower of Babel.
As for the world-building, he’s been there and done that. Wu, like many of his like-minded peers, is in his own startup. He’s a programmer, a creator cloaked in unassuming button-downs and beaten-up New Balances. And never before has it been easier for those like him to breathe life into the ether.
All it takes is a few hundred flicks of the wrist.
“There are so many possibilities for this,” he said, eyes glued to the screen.
The room is sparse, a half-moon dais listing over the one side. In front, an IBM presenter is pitching the problem and the product: Home to more than 7,000 international students and 13,000 in the school’s online World Campus program, Penn State is searching for answers to multiple languages in one.
Many of those students, Wu says, are doing the same.
“It’s called a ‘World Campus,’ but it only supports one world language,” said Wu, who is trilingual. “It’s only in English, so all our knowledge is in one language.”
IBM’s Watson, the thing named after the company’s first CEO, the thing that is helping fight cancer, the thing that beat Ken Jennings in Jeopardy, may be the polyglot the powers that be are looking for. (“C-3PO” was already taken.)
Forget English. Artificial intelligence, says Daren Coudriet, the entrepreneur-in-residence for the Penn State EdTech Network, is the new lingua franca.
“We’re really solidifying our strategy right now around AI,” he said. “You talk to people at the university and you do hear we need to improve access and affordability. So I take that seriously and everything I look at potentially building with AI I look at from the student standpoint and think how can we help that group.”
Wu says his team, made up of him, a classmate and another student he met here, is looking to harness Watson to help World Campus truly earn its name.
“I’d probably use it in a full-course translation system,” he said. “I’d use the speech-recognition to get a transcript of a lecture and then translate that lecture into any other language needed.”
Homework, he continues, can also be transcribed, translated and spit back into the system, with users on either end being able to read it in their native language.
“The machine would translate,” he said. “Say the homework was in Chinese: A bilingual TA could check that the translation was good, and finally the professor could just check it in English like any other assignment.”
The task is part of the Nittany Watson Challenge, a joint initiative by IBM and the university in improving the student experience at Penn State. The school’s EdTech Network, which focuses on building partnerships like this one, is offering $100,000 in grant money for the winners.
Announced during the school’s HackPSU, a 24-hour rapid prototyping competition, in the fall, the challenge kicked off with a two-day “Immersion Event” in downtown State College. On day two, a drizzly Friday in January, Wu listens as the IBM presenter demonstrates the Watson interface.
The presenter surveys the room: Does anyone speak Portuguese?
Smiles and silence.
But then he presses a button and Watson takes over.
“The potential of these tools to learn and get better over time and understand our problems is what is in my mind, really cool,” said Larry Ragan, the co-director of the Center for Online Innovation in Learning at Penn State. “It’s not just with IBM — it could be working with Google or Amazon, too — to actually address real issues like ‘I need to make a decision about what college to go to,’ or ‘I need to make a decision about what major to focus on.’ These AI technologies allow us to make better decisions rather than tell us what to do.”
Besides Ragan’s suggestions, the challenges stretch from addressing whether transfer credits make the cut to recommending clubs and organizations based on a student’s personality profile. Algorithms cull preferences, pestle them to a digital pulp and then churn out recommendations.
Then there’s breaking the language barrier. Though the challenge kicked off in January, the walls are coming down thanks to AI, Ragan says.
They’ve been coming down for a while now.
“These IBM guys — they’re very quick to say we’re not done, this is an evolutionary process,” Ragan said, “and then for the faculty members and the students to think about big gnarly problems that we have in education and being able to apply these technologies — for me, it’s been a learning experience.”