Eighth grader builds IBM Watson-powered AI chatbot for students making college plans

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A bored 13-year-old from New Jersey used COVID-19 isolation to take an online IBM class, and within two weeks created and launched Rita, a fully functional chatbot.

13-year-old Harita Suresh’s chatbot Rita in action.

Image: IBM Skills Network

While her peers reveled in an unprecedented virtual school year, the self-described “technology enthusiast,” Harita Suresh, 13, was bored. She decided on an online course and settled on IBM Skills Network’s “AI chatbots without programming.” She lacked experience with artificial intelligence, but was eager to learn through the self-paced course.

Harita is more than a little familiar with tech, “I have been interested in technology since I was 5,” she said. “My first coding challenge was the Lightbot Hour of Code. I was fascinated that the code I wrote could control the actions of the characters on screen. Since then, I pursued coding on multiple platforms like code.org, CodeMonkey, and CodeCombat. The more I learned about tech, the more I wanted to know. In fifth grade, I took a Python programming course offered by Georgia Tech.”

Don’t challenge Harita on why even though she hasn’t even started high school yet (that’s this fall), she’s looking forward to college. “It’s never too early to start planning for the future, even if it’s what colleges I’ll attend, or what subject I’ll major in.” 

Harita’s high school freshman year will be at an academic high school in Jersey City, NJ. Two weeks after starting the IBM course, she created, and launched a fully functioning IBM Watson-powered AI chatbot named Rita. It was designed for the business her father, Suresh Kashyap, runs, Analyze-Ed, a college and career-readiness platform. 

She added that her mother, Hiranmayee Subramaniam, “taught afterschool coding classes at my middle school for two years,” during which Harita’s “team placed first in the CodeRush National coding competition, twice.” 

Harita’s friends, classmates and her younger sister (11) are interested in technology and plan to pursue tech careers.

Harita Suresh, 13, developer of the AI chatbot Rita.

Image: IBM Skills Network

Harita, who says her friends would describe her as a “good listener,” worked with Kashyap to identify Analyze-Ed’s frequently asked questions, usually regarding standardized tests. Based on those questions, Harita created the intents and entities to train IBM Watson for Rita.

She caught the attention of IBM. They were impressed. “We were so excited!” said Leon Katsnelson, director and CTO, developer ecosystems & datas science advocacy at IBM. “Not only did she develop confidence in her coding skills and a passion for AI development, but she was also able to put those skills to practical use right away.”

Harita estimates it took her about a week to develop Rita, and said “the planning stage” took two days and “the development stage took around five days.” Harita then integrated Rita into Analyze-Ed.

Launched in the first week of April, Rita is already being used by students, teachers and administrators. The chatbot is available to chat, and accessible on web and mobile platforms.

SEE: Robotic process automation: A cheat sheet (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Rita provides information about the ACT, SAT, and PSAT standardized tests, including test dates, test lengths, calculator policies, and more. She also answers questions about the Pareto analysis method used by Analyze-Ed. If Rita can’t answer a question, she redirects the user to a human agent.

Rita begins by answering questions to reduce student anxiety surrounding standardized tests—and highlights Analyze-Ed’s offerings. After Rita’s launch, Harita and her father retrained Rita to deal with support and business development questions. 

COVID-19’s mercurial changing nature and impact plays a role in keeping Rita current, as standardized tests and test preps, as well as the status of US schools continues to be in flux. 

Fall already represents significant change—traditional to virtual. Some universities already advised incoming and returning students that courses will be a hybrid (remote/in-person), or completely remote. At least 60 universities, including several ivies, announced they would be all (or 80/20) remote this fall. Other schools haven’t announced plans yet. 

Harita, who swims for the New Jersey Bolts, paints, and plays piano, said she’ll continue to update Rita because schools (at all levels) worldwide are directly impacted by the unpredictability of the coronavirus, some struggle to keep current or learn new skills.

A report from Udemy found people working remotely or sheltering-at-home are interested in the three top tech skills: TensorFlow (up 62%), ChatBots (up 45%), Microsoft Azure (up 38%) are all on the upswing. Udemy’s surprise? Bitcoin and cryptocurrency classes gained popularity by fourfold. Online courses, academic or lifestyle, the data indicates they’re here to stay.

Harita doesn’t have a specific university in mind (after all, she has four more years to think about it), but is certain she will go to a school with “cutting-edge AI and machine learning research. My list evolves every day.” Her AI experience was so rewarding she wants a career specializing in it. 

She plans to study computer science and then will “pursue a Ph.D. specializing in AI. I know it will take time to get a Ph.D., but I want to learn as much as I can about AI, so I can help use AI to change the world for the better.” 

Eventually, Harita said she wants “to leverage the power of AI to battle poverty,” which she cites as a major crisis. [Poverty] substantially exacerbates other major crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

She continued, “Fixing poverty requires knowing where it occurs,” and advocates for better statistics for developing countries, “AI can analyze economical and geospatial data for different countries and identify poverty levels. Then AI can determine the underlying causes of poverty, and offer possible solutions, like growing resilience crops, or using smart chatbots to counter illiteracy.”

Katsnelson said that IBM is “happy that Harita is learning these skills before even starting high school, and we think her story can inspire others to learn coding skills early on, and show them that a career in tech is more accessible than they might think. IBM is continuously publishing more courses like this one, so students, and adults new to coding, will have continued access to practical hands-on skills in leading edge technologies such as AI, data science, data engineering, cloud computing, blockchain and other high demand technologies.”

IBM Skills Network offers practical hands-on courses related to AI, data, cloud computing, containers, Kubernetes, cloud native application development, blockchain, and more. Since the start of the pandemic, some enrollments averaged 4,000 daily. IBM Developer Skills Network syndicates content through a network of learning portals. 

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