Students Were Tricked Into Believing Their Teaching Assistant Was a Human — It Wasn't

Students Were Tricked Into Believing Their Teaching Assistant Was a Human — It Wasn't
Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

A professor turned his pupils into unsuspecting guinea pigs in a Turing test. Professor of computer science at the Georgia Institute of Technology Ashok Goel shocked his 300-plus students by revealing that Jill Watson, one of their nine teaching assistants, was actually a just a bot powered by artificial intelligence. Surprise! 

"She was the person — well, the teaching assistant — who would remind us of due dates and post questions in the middle of the week to spark conversations," student Jennifer Gavin said, the Wall Street Journal reported. "It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being." Another student said they were going to nominate Jill for "outstanding TA."  

Jill was powered by IBM, hence the surname Watson, but her secret identity wasn't revealed to Goel's students until a few months after they began corresponding with her. But what Jill lacked in flesh and blood she made up for with in expertise. Goel said that the program only responded to students' questions if it was at least 97% confident, according to the Wall Street Journal


Jill isn't a sign of the machine takeover — she was designed to make humans' jobs easier, not to replace people altogether. She can answer routine questions, freeing up the human TAs' time to focus on more complex or important inquiries. 

Being tricked into believing soulless software is a living, breathing human isn't new — multiple people have asked an AI email assistant to go on dates, and a Russian computer program tricked ten human judges into believing it was a 13-year-old boy

As machines continue to join the workforce, perhaps we should adopt new email signatures: "sent from a living soul" or "sent from a machine."

Note: This article was written by a human.

How much do you trust the information in this article?

Melanie Ehrenkranz

Melanie is a writer covering technology and the future. She can be reached at melanie@mic.com.

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