When Bill Gates says he’s investing in something, you know it’s going to become popular. Earlier this year, Gates discussed Microsoft’s recent investment in bots and how artificial intelligence (AI) can fix education.

“So AI tutors, that’s one of the verticals that will be played with, is this whole dialogue richness,” said Gates. “Then you can have vertical tutors where, if you’re confused about a concept, it’s another level of interactivity. Today’s interactivity is OK, I answered a few questions wrong, so then it repeats the lecture. [With an AI tutor,] I can engage in a dialogue.…The idea that you could talk to a [virtual] adviser that would understand different misconceptions and arbitrary linguistics around it, that’ll certainly come in the next decade.”

An AI tutor, or chatbot, is a computer program designed to simulate an intelligent conversation with one or more humans via auditory or textual means. Today’s chatbots are becoming smarter than ever before with improvements in AI technology. As chatbots become smarter and more capable of understanding figurative language and solving more complex problems, they become more useful in fields such as education.

In education there is a growing push toward personalized learning and chatbots help achieve that goal. Through intelligent chatbots, students can receive individualized instruction and help. Additionally, a teacher can only give one student one-on-one attention; however, with a chatbot, the whole classroom can receive individualized instruction at the same time.

While many companies and universities are working on developing chatbots that can tutor students in a broad array of subjects and classes, one chatbot that is up and running is a dinosaur named Tina. National Geographic  Kids U.K. features Tina on its Facebook page. Children, or adults, can message Tina questions about dinosaurs and she will answer. Students can use Tina to learn more for either a class assignment or to follow their own personal interest.

While many chatbots are still in the development stage, some universities have been piloting chatbots in individual classes. Ashok Goel, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech, worked with IBM to develop Jill Watson, a teaching assistant chatbot. Goel didn’t reveal Watson’s true identity until after students had turned in final exams. Students were impressed with Watson when they believed it to be a human teaching assistant, and were doubly impressed with they learned it was an AI bot.

“Just when I wanted to nominate Jill Watson as an outstanding TA in the CIOS [Course-Instructor Opinion Survey] survey!” wrote one in the class’s online forum, according to the Washington Post.

While chatbots aren’t yet ubiquitous in education, because of the significant benefits they offer teachers and students, it’s only a matter of time before every class has a chatbot.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.