What are Virtual Assistants?


As voice recognition and gesture-based technologies advance and more recently, converge, we are moving away from the notion of interaction with our devices via a pointer and keyboard. Virtual assistants are the natural end goal of natural user interfaces (NUI), and build on developments in interfaces across the spectrum of engineering, computer science, and biometrics. A new class of smart televisions will be among the first devices to make comprehensive use of the idea. While crude versions of virtual assistants have been around for some time, we have yet to achieve the level of interactivity seen in Apple's classic video, Knowledge Navigator . The Apple iPhone 4s’ Siri is a recent mobile-based example, and allows users to control all the functions of the phone, participate in lifelike conversations with users, and more. Microsoft Research is devoting considerable resources to developing NUIs. Virtual assistants for learning are clearly in the long-term horizon, but the potential of the technology to add substance to informal modes of learning is compelling.

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(1) How might this technology be relevant to the educational sector you know best?

  • support lerning activities in a personalized way; take the role as peer student, teacher in the learning process, in particular in collaborative learning / group learning settings - Christian.Guetl Christian.Guetl Aug 9, 2012
  • homework guide, tough problem walk-through, gentle "mom-like" nudge to keep going, etc. - Russ.Meier Russ.Meier Aug 19, 2012
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(2) What themes are missing from the above description that you think are important?

  • intelligent pedagogical agents - Christian.Guetl Christian.Guetl Aug 9, 2012
  • Christian, That would mean teachers --or at least TA's?? :-)- antonio.vantaggiato antonio.vantaggiato Aug 18, 2012
  • Antonio's joke about removing the instructor in favor of an agent is, of course, the real concern most professors have about virtual agents. If we evolve agents to the level that they are good enough to guide students through exercises then potentially, some would argue, you don't need teachers any more! I disagree fundamentally. Students are not robots. They do want human interaction. Virtual agents can be great support mechanisms to human mentors. - Russ.Meier Russ.Meier Aug 19, 2012
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(3) What do you see as the potential impact of this technology on STEM+ education?

  • support lerning activities in a personalized way; take the role as peer student, teacher in the learning process, in particular in collaborative learning / group learning settings - Christian.Guetl Christian.Guetl Aug 9, 2012
  • Natural language processing promises machines that interact in more intelligent ways. This means that generations of learners will be able to ask questions and have results presented in appropriately filtered context-aware ways. This is the future of search engines and it * most definitely * will impact STEM education as all students will be using it! - Russ.Meier Russ.Meier Aug 19, 2012
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(4) Do you have or know of a project working in this area?

  • running PhD for supporting science education - Christian.Guetl Christian.Guetl Aug 9, 2012
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