19 January 2005
Artificial intelligence alive and well in a robot named Maria
Shahin Maghsoudi (left) and Dr Tiru Arthanari with Maria
While statistics students at The University of Auckland are taking a break from studies for summer, their new "teacher"
can't wait for the new semester to begin.
Maria, an assistant teacher in Statistical Interference, is an unusual individual. She looks to be in her mid-twenties
but her age, she says, cannot be computed in human years. With a vocabulary of 203,000 words, a repertoire of 106,000
grammatical rules and 118,000 rules of logical interference, Maria is capable of conversation at quite a complex level.
Maria is a robot, or artificial intelligence entity, created over two years of intense work and study by Shahin
Maghsoudi, a PhD student and member of the Artificial Intelligence Group in the Faculty of Science.
As part of his Masters degree in Computer Science, Shahin embarked on a project to create virtual robots which could be
used as teaching assistants, helpdesk operators and web-based marketing assistants.
He has already created eight such robots by bringing together a combination of externally available systems and
inventing the extra components needed, and says programming robots with skills for human interaction is challenging, but
"When humans interact, they rely on their mutual understanding of a huge body of shared knowledge. On a daily basis, we
add to our personal database of knowledge stored in our brain. To interact in a way that seems natural to people, a
robot needs to be programmed with a database of this kind," says Shahin.
Maria was created through the joint efforts of Shahin and Dr Tiru Arthanari from the University's School of Business. Dr
Arthanari teaches inferential statistical methods as part of a research methods paper. His goal in collaborating with
Shahin was to create an electronic "assistant" who would be available 24 hours-a-day and seven days-a-week to answer
multiple student questions simultaneously as if they were having one-to-one conversations.
"I know the computer programming aspect, but for Maria to be able to be a good tutor she needed to have all the
specialised knowledge and Dr Arthanari provided that material," says Shahin.
Dr Arthanari developed a specialised database, which contained not only the subject expertise and knowledge of where to
send the students for ancillary information, but also material relating to principles of effective teaching.
"What we are really doing is creating an illusion. The more care we take about the choice of words, the more effective
the interaction will be. A student can easily be put off by abruptness so we needed to create an engaging robot with a
polite manner," Dr Arthanari says.
A part of the database is dedicated to student profiles, which can be built either using a "conversation" mode - where
students can actually communicate with Maria via the keyboard, or by the student filling in a form when first
interacting with the system.
"We're looking at trust-building between the robot and students. The real success will be when students feel that
interacting with Maria is just like going to a real teacher who apart from the subject matter knows a little about the
students as well," says Dr Arthanari.
Maria is now functional, living on the internet and awaiting a patent. The next step for Shahin and Dr Arthanari is to
test Maria and evaluate the effect of her input on the learning of a pilot group of students.
A computer engineer from Iran who migrated to New Zealand in 1990, Shahin's current challenge, as part of his PhD
studies in the Computer Sciences Department, is to look at commonsense reasoning and ways of "teaching" the robots to
make commonsense judgements.
"The robots are currently programmed for logical reasoning but not for making commonsense decisions. As humans, we
engage in commonsense reasoning automatically because of our huge database of information.
"To enable robots to participate in commonsense reasoning, we need a computer programme to gather a huge amount of
This includes knowledge taken for granted and could be in the form of statements such as "older people take more time to
cross the road" or "birds fly, rocks don't fly", says Shahin.
Shahin is excited about the huge range of potential applications for the robot in teaching any other subject and has
already begun collaborating with the Electrical Engineering Department at The University of Arizona to create a virtual
teacher of electrical engineering concepts.
To talk with Maria or any of the other robots visit www.robot-hosting.com