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IBM Watson Meets Big Bird

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Children are natural explorers. They like to learn. However, their learning styles can vary wildly. How can we allow each child to learn at his or her own pace, teaching them what they need to know, but within the context of what excites each child’s curiosity? Can we deliver knowledge when they are most ready to learn it? Can we deliver those ideas within the context of the world they know to enhance and deepen learning?

On April 27th, IBM Watson and Sesame Workshop took a step in this direction when they joined forces to create a new approach to education. Sesame Workshop brings 45 years of research into how children learn. They also bring a brand that is affectionately recognized worldwide. IBM adds its technical prowess in cognitive computing, with its ability to conduct dialogs in natural language, derive context, and determine patterns of behavior and interest. Together, they hope to develop learning platforms and applications that deliver engaging, immersive experiences, and that extend beyond the school into the home in order to engage parents as well.

This individualized approach, done right, should be a boon to all children, no matter their learning style, pace, or level. One hopes it will combat both confusion and boredom. IBM Watson and Sesame Workshop hope to personalize learning, using the context of the child’s likes, dislikes, interests, and experience as context for delivering knowledge that is appropriate and exciting—fun. Because cognitive systems are also learning systems, they will adapt and learn themselves as the child changes. Cognitoys’ toy dinosaur, due on the market in June, is another early experiment in cognitive systems for education that is based on IBM Watson. The goal in both cases is to create a friend—a companion—that knows you and accompanies you in the earliest part of life’s voyage.

There are bound to be bumps in the development road. When it comes to raising children, everyone has an opinion. Questions of which values, facts or beliefs to teach are bound to arise. As in each of the aspects of life that cognitive computing will touch, we can expect change, disagreements and passions on all sides. But there is no going back.

The two organizations plan to start with early childhood education because the developing brain is open to learning at this time of life, and the effects of improved learning are profound. The research from Sesame Workshop becomes a valuable knowledge base for Watson. So does the wealth of experience in developing effective educational materials. They will also invite stakeholders—educators, parents and researchers to help guide the design of these applications, identifying the educational high points and sore points. It’s the right place to start to make the biggest splash. But we can all hope that the eventual outcome will affect all ages. Imagine personalized lifelong learning. Or, even more critically needed, companionship and stimulation for those who are aging and finding that their lives are becoming ever more circumscribed. Learning should and can be a lifelong hobby. If we make it entrancing, it could even become habit forming.

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About the Author:

Sue Feldman is Co-founder and Managing Director at the Cognitive Computing Consortium. She also is PrAs VP for Content Technologies at IDC, Sue developed and led research on search, text analytics and unified access technologies and markets. Her most recent book, The Answer Machine was published in 2012. Her current research is on use cases and guidelines for adopting cognitive computing to solve real world problems.
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