Talking robots arrived at PCC in August, and they are slowly learning our ways. They are here to help, and they could be good news for the thousands of PCC students now taking courses in English as a second language.Over the last year Ron Chang Lee, adjunct faculty in the languages division, has developed a suite of Web chat robots to help E.S.L. students practice their conversation. Now, with the help of a “superbot” package he purchased in December, Lee is training the robots to make their responses even more useful.

“Teachers encourage students to talk with native speakers, but they don’t always have an opportunity,” Lee said. “It’s impossible to have tutors for everyone. It’s also very expensive. The solution is a chat robot.”

Working with a $30,000 grant he received in December 2006 from the William and Flora Hewlett foundation, Lee hired students from the English division in the spring 2007 semester. They developed model scripts for a handful of common real-life interactions: shopping, renting an apartment, and checking into a hotel. In summer 2007, students from the drama department voiced the scripts so that students could listen to both sides. The next step was artificial intelligence.

Like the practice dialogues found in language textbooks, Web chat interaction allows students to practice using their English in real-world situations, with proper grammar modeled for them. Unlike the texts, their Web chat dialogues can be different each time, allowing E.S.L. students to practice language creatively — at least for the humans involved.

The chat robots themselves are anything but creative. They respond according to simple grammatical rules written in the Artificial Intelligence Markup Language, developed by Dr. Richard Wallace. A set of AIML rules forms the basis for A.L.I.C.E. (Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity), a three-time winner of the annual Loebner Prize for the “most human computer.”

“E.S.L. sites are the No. 1 source of traffic to Alicebot.org,” wrote Wallace in an article for that site. “E.S.L. students need a lot of practice chatting in English, and the bot provides a very safe environment in which to practice.”

Each of the robots has its own avatar, an animated character that allows the robot to express itself visually. More than mere “eye candy,” the animation strengthens the illusion of a personal interaction. Languages Division Dean Ted Young said, “We want it to be fun because we want students to be engaged.”

Paul Wilkinson, associate professor in business and computer technology, reviewed Lee’s site, at www.eslfast.com/robot. Wilkinson said, “This is very nicely engineered. The avatars, the chat engine — these are state-of-the-art. They’re not using anything that a corporate site wouldn’t use.”

Wilkinson added that this same technology, along with voice recognition, is behind the help-line call routing that Sprint currently uses. “They’ve got a good thing here,” he said. “I think it’s fantastic.”

But this space-age technology serves a down-to-Earth purpose. “This is very much geared toward the needs of our classrooms,” said Young. “The main purpose is to give students practically unlimited opportunities to practice. It’s 3 a.m. and you’re doing your homework . and it’s there.”

As more students use the system, its capabilities will continue to expand. “It’s got a long way to go to compare with a human tutor,” Lee said. “I think in just the last few months I’ve found some ways to make it work better. I’m very happy about that. This has so much potential.

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