Penn State

‘The innovation is happening so rapidly’

Artificial intelligence, such as IBM’s Watson, helps decision makers make better-informed decisions by processing larger quantities of information quicker than the human brain.
Artificial intelligence, such as IBM’s Watson, helps decision makers make better-informed decisions by processing larger quantities of information quicker than the human brain. CDT graphic

Editor’s note: This story on how artificial intelligence is about to change the educational experience at Penn State is the second installment in a four-part series running Sunday through Wednesday.

As for Watson, that “thing,” it can learn, too. It can read and talk and listen. Like a human.

Better, so much better, says Rich Prewitt, the chief test engineer and on-campus IBMer at Penn State, than a human.

“The real intention behind Watson capabilities is to provide decision makers with insight so that they can make better decisions,” he said before the HackPSU event in November. “If you think about that in terms of fighting cancer… It can assess the information a lot faster and consume thousands of articles a week.”

Daren Coudriet, the Penn State EdTech Network’s entrepreneur-in-residence, said the impact of artificial intelligence on higher education is the focus right now. Machine learning can enhance student learning, he says, in ways we couldn’t imagine before. Especially for students in the online market, which is expanding rapidly. According to Eduventures, a higher-ed research firm, the online education market is worth more than $1 billion.

Like several of the rising numbers of freshmen the university sees with each successive year, World Campus is 18 years old. But unlike those freshmen, it’s projected to pull in a revenue of $160 million this year.

Improving the online program, which serves about 13.5 percent of the university population representing about 85 countries, is a priority, Coudriet says. Since 2012, World Campus has grown by nearly 5,000 students.

“Anybody who has gone and taken online learning programs, I think most come back with the experience saying, ‘OK, that was less than what I expected,’ ” Coudriet said. “Even though it’s been around a while, I think it’s still in its infancy in terms of its capability to deliver engaging content.”

Back IRL, the netizens look up from their laptops: The presentation is over. Hands are shook. Smiles crease lips. The presenter checks his watch and alerts the room the next presentation will begin in 15 minutes.

Lawrence Wu, a Penn State senior, keeps his laptop open. He leans back and stretches and glances around the room, the third-floor council chambers of the State College Municipal Building. With lunch imminent, he debates if he wants to stay for the next session. His screen, meanwhile, goes to sleep.

But it’s inside those matrices, that network of slashes and ciphers, where Wu lives and the future is taking shape.

Out here, in the third-floor council chambers of the State College Municipal Building, is where Wu exists. It’s inside where his life, and the rest of ours, may be unfolding, byte by byte, like by like.

“The innovation is happening so rapidly,” Coudriet said. “It’s difficult to keep up with the changes that are occurring.”

So, for now, “thing” may be the best way to describe Watson. Because Watson, or artificial intelligence in general, is that and more.

Soon, Watson may be everything: a friend, a confidant, a companion, one that will shape not only how we learn, but who we are.

“This concept came from the AI,” Wu said. “It has that ability.”

Roger Van Scyoc: 814-231-4698, @rogervanscy

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