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  • Writer's pictureJohn Ennis

Eye on AI - November 20th, 2020

Welcome to Aigora's "Eye on AI" series, where we round up exciting news at the intersection of consumer science and artificial intelligence!


This week, we’ll be looking at how ‘telepresence’ robots are helping schools reduce the effects of isolation in remote students by giving them unique classroom-like experiences from home, then transition to news on Alexa’s new ‘intent’ voice command AI.


Smart Robot Cameras Give Virtual Students a Truly Class-Like Experience

Let’s begin with a look at ‘telepresence’ robots, or robots that act as camera-mounted microphones. According to the Washington Post article “‘Telepresence’ robots are making virtual school feel a little more like real school,” schools across the country have been utilizing telepresence robots during the pandemic to give students a more classroom-like experience while they’re forced to work remotely.

“The robots move in a variety of ways,” notes Washington Post contributor Jennifer Davis. “Some come with tracking devices that teachers wear around their neck or leave in parts of the classroom, so the robot knows which direction to point its camera. Others follow the loudest sounds in the room. And the Kubi is controlled by students at home through a widget downloaded to a device such as an iPad or laptop.”

Pre-pandemic, telepresence robots were typically used for things like teacher training and higher education. Once the pandemic hit, manufacturers modified their robots for larger classroom use, resulting in more community-centric, classroom-like camera movements. With isolation becoming a major issue during the pandemic, schools hope these telepresence robots will reduce the effects of isolation by giving students a more structured, natural learning experience.

“[Telepresence robot cameras] feel more natural,” says Joe Peacock, director of technology at Burgundy Farm, which invested in [classroom robots] for the first time this summer and now has [them] in 11 classrooms. “It’s like you are sitting in the classroom and turning your head to hear who is talking. The kids in class interact very naturally with the children at home, and I do think the kids at home appreciate it…. It helps them connect and feel more like they are there.”

The positive reception of telepresence robots led to a boom in sales beginning in June. Owl Labs reported a 13,000 percent increase in usage of its device by K-12 education customers since the onset of the pandemic, while another manufacturer — Xandex — has seen more than 50 percent growth as a result of the pandemic. As more schools go remote and the threat of mental disorders due to isolation increases, expect telepresence robot usage to increase.

Alexa Can Now Understand ‘Intent’ of Misspoken Commands

We conclude with a look into new advances in Alexa’s word ‘intent’ technology. According to the Digital Information World (DIW) article “Alexa becomes smarter – now equipped with ability to detect ‘intent’ behind words,” Amazon announced this week that its Alexa speakers can now determine the intent of user requests when command words are misused or misspoken.

“The company says that the technology behind the latent goal predictions are complex and the company used advance algorithms to ensure the AI predictions work precisely,” writes DIW contributor Saima Salima. “However, Amazon did say that not all interaction with Alexa will end with predictions.”

Not all users are excited about the announcement. Some claim the advanced ‘intent’ AI will be used by Amazon for upsell and target ads, while others worry the technology doesn’t have robust privacy protections in place. The concern isn’t whether or not the new ‘intent’ algorithms will collect more data –– Alexa devices already collect and analyze every user command –– but how they will collect data, which is still a big unknown. Regardless, Amazon does seem to be running into a major PR problem. Educating customers on how Alexa’s technology works and adding privacy controls might go a long way assuaging any concerns.

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