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Ask Iggy: Building a smarter, more personable AI platform is RaD Lab’s latest goal

Steve Maaske, left, an innovation analyst in the Creighton RaDLab, and Nidaa Mungloo, a senior computer science major and RaDLab intern, are helping develop a new artificial intelligence platform for Creighton.His name is Iggy. Ask him anything.

That’s the hope of the latest project in Creighton University’s RaD Lab: an artificial intelligence platform that will one day be able to answer as many quick, easy questions as Creighton students, faculty and staff can fling at it.

“The more you ask Iggy, the more he learns,” said Nidaa Mungloo, a senior in computer science from the island nation of Mauritius and an intern in the RaD Lab tasked with helping make Iggy as human as humanly possible. “We want to make it as personable as possible, so that people feel as if they are talking to another human and getting information in a way that a human would deliver it.”

Right now, Iggy, as a chatbot interface, can answer about 75 different questions in different ways, everything from “'Sup?” to “Hey, my laptop’s not working, can you help?” In a few weeks, the RaD Lab will roll out the first version of the AI platform. Then, said the Rad Lab’s Senior Director of Innovation Ryan Cameron, the bigger work of teaching and training Iggy begins.

“This in no way replaces human interaction,” Cameron said. “The Division of IT will continue to be right here, fully human and ready to help. What we envision from Iggy is a way for students to ask quick, simple questions to which they can get straightforward, simple answers, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But we also want them to be able to ask complex questions that will get Iggy thinking. And some of those questions will help Iggy contact the people on the other end of the IT spectrum, who are then ready to help with information Iggy has already collected.”

Ultimately, Cameron said, the hope is that Iggy might one day be able to answer questions pertaining to student life like “What’s on the menu at Brandeis tonight?” or “When is the next paper in my English class due?”

Iggy is the chatbot working in Creighton's AI.As with many of the RaD Lab’s undertakings, the scope of the Iggy project would place Creighton, quite literally, in the conversation with some of the nation’s biggest engineering and computing colleges.

“Eventually, our chatbot will be able to communicate with other chatbots at colleges around the country,” Cameron said. “It’s another way we help Iggy get smarter.”

Steve Maaske, an innovation analyst in the RaD Lab, has also been playing with Iggy and honing its skills, seeking the next thing for the AI platform to tackle.

“I think of the idea of a med student talking to the computer, working out a problem and being able to say, ‘Take me to the lecture where Dr. N talks about mitosis,’ and the computer just pulls up the video,” Maaske said. “We’re working toward that kind of a goal.”

The foray into AI started with Creighton’s contacting a startup company named Ivy, which is specializing in AI chatbot programming and has worked very openly to help Creighton move its project along.

“We’ve been working very well with Ivy, bouncing a lot of ideas off them,” Cameron said. “There are a couple of different algorithms to work out on where we want this to go and they’ve been instrumental in that. We want to make Iggy bilingual, we want it to pass the Turing test. It’s obviously a multi-year endeavor, but we are going to keep teaching Iggy new things.”

For all the projected capaciousness of Iggy’s virtual brain, both Maaske and Mungloo are still working on ensuring that the chatbot retains some connection to its human programmers and the humans who will be asking it questions. Passing the Turing test — an examination devised by British computer scientist Alan Turing in which a human user cannot tell if she’s talking to another human or a computer — has been the focus of Mungloo’s portion of the project.

“I think the approach has been, ‘Let’s see what happens if we ask …’ and see what kinds of answers we can help bring about,” she said. “There have been a lot of random questions, a lot of different variations on questions we’ve asked and we’ve come up with some interesting answers. We want it to be friendly and for the answers to seem less mechanical.”

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