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How Mia Helps Kids Grow As Readers With AI Through Being An Open Book

June 26, 2018

How Mia Helps Kids Grow As Readers With AI Through Being An Open Book

Or, why kids actually do have to understand artificial intelligence to use Mia

By Darren Cambridge

Mia is designed to be so easy that even a six-year-old can use her with little or no adult assistance to support their growth as a reader. Children who are only beginning to read can happily have long conversations with Mia and have used her to select and reflect on books they love. So, this may come as a surprise: Kids need to understand artificial intelligence to use Mia. 

While there are some intriguing experiments underway to teach artificial intelligence concepts to younger children, AI has generally been the subject of college level computer science courses. So how can we possibly assume that an elementary-school student could understand it?

Thankfully, kids don’t need the same kind of understanding that engineers do to fully benefit from Mia. They don’t need to learn the intricacies of supervised learning algorithms or natural language understanding libraries. They don’t need to know how to control servos or temperature sensors (although all of us here are robotics club fans).

Kids do need to understand:

  • That Mia is not human. She has a number of impressive strengths and significant limitations, and she’s never going to be a replacement for the knowledgeable and caring adults who contribute to kids’ lives as readers.
  • What Mia believes she knows about them as readers and the reasoning behind her recommendations and suggestions.

Mia As Droid

Researchers such as sociologist Sherry Turkle have suggested that artificial-intelligence-powered toys and personal assistants have the potential to harm children’s social development, noting that some children don’t seem to make a distinction between their relationships with such system and real human relationships. Like the developers of the technology that Turkle examined, we do hope that children develop an effective bond with Mia, developing trust in her helpfulness and honesty and enjoying her corny jokes.

Unlike them, we never want kids to forget that Mia is a computer program or to think her presence in their lives eliminates a need for teachers, librarians, parents, or (human) friends. Mia is explicit about what she can do well—she knows more about almost every book in print than is probably possible for any human to remember, and she’s available 24/7 and for as long as they need her—but also about her limitations. For example, when Mia can’t understand something a child has said to her, one of the ways she replies is:

OK, so here’s the thing. Some things are easy for me that are hard from you, like remembering how many pages there are in each of thousands of books. But there are other things that are a breeze for you and really tough for me, like understanding whatever it was you just said. I’m going to get better everyday, but it will be a long time before I’m even as good as a kindergartner. For now, think about it as a game: What ways can you say what you want me to know or to do that I’m actually smart enough to understand?

Along the same lines, Mia is intentionally cartoonish in appearance, not photorealistic. Her voice is expressive, but isn’t going to fool anyone on the phone. We aren’t creating a virtual reality. Mia isn’t trying to pass as human. Mia is an explicitly virtual presence firmly situated within, and in service of, kids’ real worlds. She draws attention to her own artificiality.

The best analogy for what we’re aiming at is the relationships between people and droids in Star Wars. Droids have enough personality and contribute sufficiently to achieving goals that humans get quite attached. At the same time, no one confuses a droid with a person. Their limitations are self-evident—R2D2 can’t speak a human language—and their appearance is distinctly mechanical—human-shaped C3PO is gold and clunky. They have non-human talents, such as talking directly with space station computers, speaking three million languages, and projecting images of distressed princesses…but we digress.

Droids are an integral part of the central characters’ world, but they collaborate with and in service of humans (and other sentient beings), none of whom see droids as a substitute for other living, breathing people. Even as the technology that powers her grows exponentially more powerful over the coming years, we always intend for Mia to be more like a droid from Star Wars than a replicant from Blade Runner or a host on Westworld.

Mia As Open Book

Mia is dedicated to working her way out of a job. Mia’s goal is not to make children dependent on her to make decisions for them. Rather, she seeks to directly support their decisions today while also helping them learn to make such decisions independently tomorrow. Children are more likely to choose books that work for them with Mia’s help, but as a result of working with her over time, they should also learn to make better choices when she’s not around.

One of the ways Mia supports this growing independence is through scaffolding. In education, the term “scaffolding” means providing support that simplifies a task sufficiently for a novice while also modeling how experts tackle it. Scaffolding provides insight into questions like: What kinds of information do experts examine? How do they use it to predict how things will turn out? How do they makes sense of what they have experienced?

As the novice becomes more skilled, scaffolding can be gradually removed, much like literal scaffolding is taken down as parts of a new building are completed. In other words, effective scaffolding not only makes a task easier, but also helps someone learning it understand how to do it well on their own.

Through sophisticated AI, Mia finds a few books to recommend to a child from tens of thousands she knows about, drawing on what she believes she knows about the child and her expert-informed understanding of how to choose books. Unlike other reading software, Mia doesn’t stop there. She not only simplifies the task—here are six books to consider, rather than a ten thousand—but she also performs scaffolding through modeling. She explains the reasons she believes a recommended book is a good fit for a given child.

For example, here’s how Mia might explain the reasons why she thinks a middle school girl will love Pharoah’s Daughter, by Julius Lester:

  • You’ve said you’re super interested in Egyptian mythology and have read several books about it; you’ll enjoy the challenge of reading this book.
  • You often like books with detailed illustrations and stories about family relationships, and this book has both of those elements.
  • You might enjoy reading a novel featuring mythological characters to complement the non-fiction you’ve read so far.

Here, Mia is applying several beliefs often applied by expert readers:

  • If you’re really interested in the topic of a book and have related background knowledge, then you’ll be able to handle a book that’s more difficult than what you typically read and will enjoy the challenge.
  • Your preferences matter: You’re more likely to enjoy books that employ formats, plot structures, writing styles, and so on similar to those used in books you already like.
  • At the same time, variety increases satisfaction. Expert readers seek out books not only with similar topics and characteristics, but also with differences that broaden their literary experience, including through reading multiple genres.

Mia also is being transparent about what she believes she knows about the child as a reader that informs her judgment. Mia think that she understands something about the child’s interests (Egyptian mythology), preferred book characteristics (detailed illustrations, family stories), and experiences with genre (have read non-fiction). Mia also shares the sources of information that inform these inferences (you told me; you’ve read and liked books like this).

Educational technology researchers call this an open learner model. In AI software that uses an open learner model, the system actively shares what it believes it knows at a given point in time about the learner and what it has observed that informs those conclusions. Learners have the opportunity to reflect on how the system’s beliefs about them compare with their own. They may sometimes also have a chance to challenge the systems’ assertions, providing additional information that can lead to changes in those beliefs. For example, if a student believes they have a better understanding of a mathematical concept than the system believes they do, the student could successfully answer a few quiz questions to prove their point.

Mia also embraces this second dimension of the open learner model, albeit with the child themselves—not yet another test—as the authority. When students debrief with Mia after their mission—that is, talk with her about how well the books she helped them choose and how their time reading them has worked out—they share additional information with Mia about their reading experiences, beliefs and preferences that may differ from what Mia thought she knew about them. Mia invites them to reflect on targeted aspects of their experiences that may enrich both her and their understanding of how to make future choices. Mia learns from these conversations, improving the quality her subsequent recommendations and coaching.

Mia truly is an open book, constantly being revised in dialogue with the children who use her. Like a book, children consult her with a clear understanding that she was crafted by people and is limited in scope and function. But like a book, and through books, she has the potential to open up new possibilities for imagination, joy, and discovery.

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