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Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

A class of students at the Georgia Institute of Technology recently learned that Jill Watson, the teacher’s assistant they’d been interacting with all semester, was actually a robot.

Jill, powered by IBM’s Watson analytics system, helped graduate students in an online artificial intelligence course, according to The Wall Street Journal.

“It seemed very much like a normal conversation with a human being,” one student said. “I was flabbergasted,” confessed another.

Ava from AI thriller 'Ex Machina.' (Photo via Facebook/Ex-Machina)
Ava from AI thriller ‘Ex Machina.’ (Photo via Facebook/Ex-Machina)

Professor Ashok Goel, who led the online course, told The Wall Street Journal that Jill was designed to help burdened TAs field an onslaught of questions from the 300-person class. While students seemed to be more amused than outraged by the revelation, some say it sets a bad precedent.

“We should have full disclosure: Am I talking to a machine or to a person?” said Oren Etzioni, CEO of Seattle’s Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, as quoted in the Wall Street Journal story.

AI exists in a vast ethical gray area, as we grapple to understand the implications of this rapidly evolving technology. Transparency will likely become a lightning rod as machines begin to mimic human personalities with more and more accuracy.

Some experts, like Hanson Robotics CEO Dave Hanson, foresee robots fully integrating with humans.

“I believe that robots will become people,” he said. “I believe that in time they will develop the complete capability of a human, to understand us, to have general intelligence and the willful desire to grow and reach their potential the way that humans experience it.”

Despite concerns about transparency, Etzioni told The Wall Street Journal that technology like Jill Watson could be “fantastic” for online education. He’s also optimistic about how intelligent machines will impact human life and has even said he envisions an AI “utopia.”

Still, Etzioni says, “We have an obligation to figure out how to help people cope with the rapidly changing nature of technology.”

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