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CMU spinoff company named a finalist in $15M Global Learning XPRIZE |

CMU spinoff company named a finalist in $15M Global Learning XPRIZE

Carnegie Mellon University
Children in Tanzania learn basic counting on RoboTutor during field tests last year.

A Carnegie Mellon University spin-off company developing a learning app is a finalist in the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE.

RoboTutor LLC received $1 million as a finalist to continue working on its software as the XPRIZE competition puts it to the test.

“This is really the most exciting part for us,” said Jack Mostow, an emeritus research professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute and the company’s founder. “This is our idea of fun. … The tech challenges are daunting and fascinating and totally engaging for nerdy people like us.”

Five projects, including RoboTutor, remain. The winner will receive a $10 million grand prize. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, put up the money for the competition.

RoboTutor uses speech recognition software, facial analysis and machine learning to teach math and reading in English and Swahili. The app listens to children as they learn and jumps in to help when students start to struggle.

The app builds on 25 years of research by Mostow.

“This is incredibly exciting for Jack and all of Carnegie Mellon, and I would not be surprised at all if they ended up winning the entire competition,” said Richard Scheines, dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

The RoboTutor team is made up of more than 100 CMU students and faculty and experts from around the globe. Among the team members is Vishnu Rajan Tejus, a 15-year-old who serves as the company’s chief technology officer and was the first to join the team. Mostow called Tejus both his oldest and youngest team member.

Tejus was working on improvements to the app even as the team returned home from New York this past weekend.

“We have been having the most exciting time and a huge blast,” Tejus said.

The Global Learning XPRIZE is an effort to combat a global teacher shortage through technology.

Teams must create a tablet app that teaches children basic reading, writing and math skills without requiring help from adults. The apps must be in both English and Swahili.

About 200 teams from 40 countries entered the competition. Only 38 teams submitted complete entries at the beginning of the year. Eleven teams were selected as semifinalists.

XPRIZE will now test RoboTutor and the four other finalists for 15 months in nearly 200 Tanzanian villages. The app that shows the most learning gains during the test wins.

Correction: Sept. 19, 2017

This story has been modified with the correct age and title for Vishnu Rajan Tejus.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected], 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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