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CMU’s RoboTutor app semifinalist in $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE | TribLIVE.com
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CMU’s RoboTutor app semifinalist in $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE

Aaron Aupperlee
| Wednesday, June 21, 2017 6:33 p.m
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Carnegie Mellon University
Children in Tanzania learn basic counting on RoboTutor during field tests last year.

A learning app developed by a team at Carnegie Mellon University is a semifinalist in the $15 million Global Learning XPRIZE.

RoboTutor, which uses speech recognition software, facial analysis and machine learning to teach math and reading in English and Swahili, is one of 11 teams remaining in the competition.

Jack Mostow, an emeritus research professor at CMU’s Robotics Institute and the team’s leader, said RoboTutor’s ability to listen to children as they learn to read sets it apart from other learning apps.

“If you can’t hear the kid, how will you know when to respond? How will you know when they make a mistake?” Mostow said. “A tutor that can’t hear, can’t help.”

Mostow said to imagine the reading portion of the app as a literate, infinitely patient and somewhat hard of hearing grandparent.

The app doesn’t quite hear every stumble a child makes and waits until the child is really struggling to jump in and help. Mostow said adults tend to be over eager to jump in and help.

RoboTutor builds on more than 25 years’ worth of research by Mostow. His team at CMU and other universities and volunteers in the field exceeds 100 people.

Amy Ogan, an assistant professor of human-computer interaction at CMU, tested RoboTutor with children in Tanzania for 21⁄2 weeks last year.

“While we focus on improving RoboTutor with large-scale data, we never forget that it really represents kids who are living and learning in a context that we must understand, in order to properly interpret that data,” Ogan said in a statement.

“While we focus on improving RoboTutor with large-scale data, we never forget that it really represents kids who are living and learning in a context that we must understand, in order to properly interpret that data,” Ogan said in a statement.

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 for adults. The apps must be in both English and Swahili.

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

The XPRIZE will select five finalists this fall. Each finalist will receive $1 million and a chance to compete for the $10 million grand prize. Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, put up the money for the competition.

The apps developed by the five finalists will be put to the test during an 18-month pilot on 4,000 kids in 200 villages across Tanzania. Children will take tests before and after the pilot.

The app that produces the most learning gains wins.

It’s not about the money for Mostow.

“If this succeeds, millions and even billions of kids can benefit and get an education,” Mostow said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Aaron at 412-320-7986, aaupperlee@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

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