I, Robot

Who isn’t intrigued by robots? As a young pup, I was fixated on robots. I remember being terrified of the robot Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still – ‘Klaatu barada nikto.’ I was thrilled by R2D2 and C3PO’s escape from Darth Vader’s stormtroopers. As a teenager, the Terminator’s inexorable pursuit of Sarah Connor made me ponder what it would be like to live in a world of robots.

More recently, the work of Boston Dynamics, incredible films such as Ex Machina, and the ubiquitous presence of Siri and Alexa have kept alive the hope that I will live long enough to experience artificial intelligence the way my much younger self imagined it.

The word ‘robot’ was created a century ago by Karel Capek, a Czech playwright, who introduced it in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots. The word has its origins in robota, an old Slavonic word for servitude and forced labor. Capek’s play tells the story of a business that, by way of chemistry, biology and physiology, mass-produces workers who ‘lack nothing but a soul’. The robots carry out the menial tasks of society, and, like all good robot stories, eventually revolt, throwing off the shackles of human oppression.

The concept was further popularised by a host of science fiction writers to follow, including Isaac Asimov, who went to the trouble of creating the Three Laws of Robotics, and seeding the ideas of a thousand Netflix series in the minds of people yet to be born.

What’s all this got to do with this blog?

I’d like to think… everything. For me, eLearning and ICT are all about making the lives of humans, specifically, students and teachers, even better than they are. It’s about making things more efficient. More effective.

One of the most tedious aspects of every teacher’s life is providing answers to questions that they (a) have answered already, or (b) should not have to answer because the information available to the student. This is a problem known to many. This holiday break, I decided to solve this. I was sure there must be a way to automate the answering of these questions. This led me to considering using ‘chatbots’ in Canvas, my school’s LMS. In my mind, I should be able to script a chatbot to answer commonly asked questions and to provide guidance when I am unavailable.

It was less difficult than I anticipated. The only issue I experienced in getting this working was that Canvas does not play well with iFrame, the means by which the chatbot’s code is placed on a website. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before a found a work-around thanks to some canny advice I garnered online and now I have a living, breathing robot answering student queries on our English site. At the moment, it answers questions about assessment tasks, next term’s studied text, and how to access ‘human’ support. Over the next few days, I’ll write a range of responses for all manner of scenarios; that’s the fun part – anticipating the queries that will be asked.

I don’t imagine I need to worry about my chatbot scheming to overthrow its human overlord any time soon, but hopefully, it will be sophisticated enough to help our students do what they need to do when they want to do it.

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