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Voice, An Educational Revolution Moving Forward


Ronaldo Mota – Writer about “Technology-based learning” and retired Full Professor in Physics at Universidade Federal de Santa Maria

In London last month, I had the opportunity to dine with my friend Patrick Towell, one of the most up-to-date British innovators of digital technologies. I asked directly: “In a nutshell, what innovation will impact the world of education in the near future?” He immediately answered with one word: “voice.” In the short term, all competitive educational institutions will have adopted voice-based virtual assistants who will become their corresponding registered trademarks. They will also be, according to him, their main interfaces of communication with the students and with the rest of the world.

Voice Assistant is a digital tool that, using sound command recognition, develops speech synthesis via natural language processing. Recent incredible artificial intelligence advances have provided voice assistants who will change our daily lives with amazing speed, including the means and methods we adopt to learn, teach and relate in the educational world.

Apple’s “Siri” was the first virtual assistant to incorporate voice, on the occasion of the launch of the iPhone 4s in October 2011. Then other devices have flourished such as the successful “Alexa” from Amazon, “Cortana” from Microsoft and Samsung’s “Bixby”. All of them making use of cloud computing and incorporating the other technological advances of this decade.

Historically, much is due to the revolutionary shoebox tool, presented by IBM at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. The size of a shoebox, it was able to recognize 16 spoken words. In 1970, Carnegie Mellon/Pennsylvania presented a similar tool, the “Harpy”, capable of recognizing an incredible 1,011 words, roughly corresponding to the vocabulary of a 3-year-old child. Over the next few decades, a lot of news has emerged, but the advent of smart phones and the advancement of the internet have opened up new and unimaginable horizons.

By 2018, in the United States, around 20% of adults have made use of this technology in their day-to-day tasks. Perhaps it is, in isolation, the innovation that further advances towards the universalization of its domestic use in the coming years. The most frequent uses have been: answer queries via prosecutors, music commands and control of other applications, weather forecast, schedule, including alarm and calendar, news, games, traffic, personalized communication, shopping, etc.

Among several pioneers in the educational use of voice-based virtual assistants, I point to Atlanta-based “Georgia Tech.” “Jill Watson” is the first fully virtual assistant professor in the case based on artificial intelligence anchored on IBM’s “Watson” platform. The numbers are still preliminary, but last year Jill’s hit rate on the issues associated with courses taught to students was 97%, a percentage unlikely to be reached by correspondent humans. In addition, while “Jill” goes far beyond being a simple virtual teacher, hard work is being done on the wrong answers in order to achieve an unlikely 100% accuracy. In fact, “Jill” has  gradually transformed into an unlimited and permanent “personal friend” of every student in the institution.

In short, in the world of learning based on digital technologies, we will have news, opportunities and certainly many risks to face ahead. Even for those who, justifiably, distrust these advances, it is advisable to be attentive and follow without prejudice these ongoing evolutions, even though, in general, they do not usually depend on our approval or consent to be adopted by the younger ones and the children.