In an effort to help solve one of the grand challenges of artificial intelligence, the University of Michigan and IBM have launched a $4.5 million collaboration to develop a new class of conversational technologies that will enable people to interact more naturally and effectively with computers. In Project Sapphire, IBM and the U-M Artificial Intelligence Lab will develop a cognitive system that functions as an academic adviser for undergraduate computer science and engineering majors at the university.

Satinder Singh Baveja, U-M professor of computer science and engineering, illustrates the Turing test, the famous test of machine intelligence developed by Alan Turing in 1950. For a computer to pass it, it must converse with a human so fluidly that the human believes the computer is a person. (Joseph Xu)

The system will allow researchers to explore how smart machines interact with people in goal-driven dialogues. To do this, the team will capture and annotate large volumes of approved recorded human-to-human conversations between undergraduates and their advisers on topics such as course selection, career advice, extracurricular recommendations and homework resources. The team will use these conversations to train the system on how to respond to interactions with students, and ultimately learn how to automatically navigate and successfully reply in conversations with those using the system.

"Human-to-machine interactions, similar to human-to-human conversations, are rarely confined to one question and one answer," said David Nahamoo, IBM fellow and chief technologist for conversational systems, IBM Watson. "They involve multiple turns of a conversation with responses that can be imprecise and unclear, making it difficult to simulate the human experience.

Unlike rules-based interactive virtual assistant systems that are programmed with hard-coded responses and scripted replies, Project Sapphire will apply probabilistic and statistical methods of reasoning that understand conditions and context, the researchers say. By employing deep learning, machine learning, reinforcement learning, natural language understanding, knowledge representation, emotion analysis and software technologies, the cognitive system will be trained using the recorded human-to-human conversations and will continue to learn and improve with increased interaction.

"Natural conversations bring in so many different aspects of human intelligence—knowledge, context, goals and emotion, for instance. In many ways, to build a versatile conversational system is a grand challenge for artificial intelligence," said Satinder Singh Baveja, professor of computer science and engineering and director of U-M's AI Lab. "We look forward to taking it on with this partnership."

Through the partnership, eight computer science and engineering faculty members, along with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, will work with IBM scientists. Within the next couple years, they expect their system to be up and running.

The digital adviser isn't meant to replace human professionals who guide students along the academic and emotional journey that is college. Once it's developed, students can choose to talk to it for simple or routine questions, or to complement a meeting with a person. Students might tell the system their preferences and receive course recommendations that advance them toward their degree. They could define broad career goals and get a good list of electives. They could hear an estimate of how many homework hours their class load might require, or be directed to extracurricular activities that might help them land the kind of job they're after.

The system would record the conversations and at any point, it could hand the session over to a human. One of the researchers involved—Emily Mower Provost, assistant professor of computer science and engineering, studies emotional cues. She'll work on enabling Project Sapphire to recognize when students need a real shoulder, even if they're not asking for one.

The automated adviser is one application of what the team envisions to be a platform technology. Project Sapphire's resulting innovations could be embedded into cognitive systems across many industries to improve how they learn and codify human expertise, understand a user's intent and context, and deliver appropriate responses that direct conversations towards a stated goal.

"What we are building has the potential to revolutionize how we interact with our computers and other devices such as our cars and our appliances," Baveja said. "These conversational systems become cognitive advisers that can assist us in a variety of personal, professional and enterprise tasks, such as advising for personal finance, helping employees in scheduling meetings and travel arrangement, and providing technical support to customers of an enterprise."