Psychology professor Dr. Art Graesser is one of the world’s leading authorities
on artificial intelligence. He was instrumental in developing AutoTutor and has been
a part of many other artificial intelligence research projects in his 24 years at
the University. He received the U of M’s Eminent Faculty Award in 1999. Graesser describes
his research and offers a glimpse of his personal life in a question and answer.
Dr. Art Graesser
AutoTutor has been around for some time now. Can you give our newer readers a brief
summary on what AutoTutor is and what the benefit is of having AutoTutor?
AutoTutor helps students learn by holding a conversation in natural language. An animated
agent (talking head) communicates in speech and rudimentary gestures. AutoTutor keeps
track of the knowledge of the learner, but also the learner’s emotions. AutoTutor
is very sensitive to this knowledge and emotions. It formulates its actions in a fashion
that is sometimes much more sensitive than humans.
AutoTutor helps students learn. AutoTutor improves learning by nearly a letter grade
compared to reading a textbook or listening to a lecture, particularly for deep knowledge.
Thousands of students have benefited from AutoTutor in the areas of computer literacy,
critical scientific thinking, physics, and biology.
How did the idea for AutoTutor come about? What year was it conceptualized and how
long did it take to reach a workable format?
In the early 1990s, I led a research team in analyzing how tutoring occurs in school
systems. We analyzed the discourse patterns and tutoring strategies of real tutors.
I discovered that the strategies that human tutors used were very effective, but they
also were very simple. They were simple and systematic enough to convince me that
they could be simulated by a computer. In 1996 I wrote a draft of a grant proposal
to the National Science Foundation after soliciting feedback on the idea from colleagues
in the interdisciplinary Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS). The proposal was
greatly improved by this team effort. In the summer of 1997, I received a telephone
call to inform me that the NSF proposal was funded for $900,000. At that point, my
life changed. I entered a new world of cutting-edge technology.
In what ways has AutoTutor been used?
AutoTutor has been developed to tutor thousands of students on many topics. Students
learn about physics, computer literacy, biology, scientific reasoning, tactical military
reasoning, and other topics. These are lengthy dialogues for difficult topics. AutoTutor
is not the boring generation of computers of 30 years ago, asking multiple-choice
questions and fill in the blank questions. Instead, AutoTutor tries to comprehend
the students and responds adaptively. It takes 100 turns sometimes between the student
and the computer to answer one difficult question.
Is it an ongoing project? What are the latest steps in the project?
Yes, AutoTutor is alive and well today. We are currently working on several grants
from the National Science Foundation and the Institute for Education Sciences – several
millions of dollars. We are currently working on two major challenges. First, how
can AutoTutor detect the student’s emotions? We know the major emotions of students
during learning are confusion, frustration, boredom, flow (deep engagement), delight
and surprise. Confusion is the best predictor of learning – a sign of thinking. The
computer automatically detects the student’s emotions (as good as human judges) on
the basis of conversation patterns, facial expressions, speech signals and body posture.
Once AutoTutor detects the emotions through these sensing devices, it intelligently
responds with ideal dialogue moves and emotions. If the student is bored, AutoTutor
produces engaging razzle-dazzle. If the student is frustrated, AutoTutor gives a good
hint. If the student is confused, AutoTutor keeps the student confused for a little
bit but not too long. Some versions of AutoTutor are empathetic, polite and supportive.
Other versions of AutoTutor are confrontational. We at the U of M (Sidney D’Mello
and I) have built the very first automated tutor that detects student emotions and
responds emotionally. That’s right – right here in Memphis.
A second challenge is to design a system with two agents interacting with the student
– a trialog. One computer agent is a tutor and the other a fellow student. If the
human student has low knowledge, AutoTutor shows a good dialogue between a tutoragent
and student-agent. If the human student is brilliant, then the human teaches the student-agent
(students learn most from teaching) and the tutor-agent chimes in whenever the trialog
deteriorates. If the human student is intermediate in knowledge, the tutoragent interacts
with the human and the student-agent chimes in when the tutor is uncertain what the
human knows. In essence we are designing systems with groups of agents who interact.
We have built the very first systems with intelligent adaptive trialogs in natural
Is there one goal for AutoTutor for the future or is it an on-going project that will
AutoTutor has blossomed into about a dozen projects, currently on more than $10 million
in grant funding from the University. We are among three universities in the U.S.
that are developing cutting-edge learning technologies with agents. Others are University
of Southern California and MIT, who we collaborate with periodically. We are the only
university that is systematically developing and testing the cutting-edge agent technologies
on learning gains.
Other systems with agents designed from scratch in the interdisciplinary Institute
for Intelligent Systems are iSTART, Writing-Pal, MetaTutor, Guru, iDRIVE, and HURA-Advisor.
These systems help students in reading, writing, self-regulated learning, question
asking, biology, research ethics – the list goes on. AutoTutor has evolved!
AutoTutor’s talking head, Marco, tutors students.
My colleagues in the IIS are taking the helm on these agent projects: Roger Azevedo,
Zhiqiang Cai, Scotty Craig, Barry Gholson, Xiangen Hu, Max Louwerse, Danielle McNamara,
Andrew Olney, and Vasile Rus. Others in the IIS don’t develop agents but inspire me
with ideas: Eugene Buder, Rick Dale, Randy Floyd, Don Franceschetti, Stan Franklin,
Iftekharuddin Khan, Roger Kreuz, Trey Martindale, Phil McCarthy, Kim Oller, and Mohammad
Who else at the University has been instrumental in developing AutoTutor?
AutoTutor requires an interdisciplinary effort. We build these with interdisciplinary
teams of psychologists, computer scientists, computational linguists, learning scientists,
artists, subject matter experts, and so on. Approximately 120 faculty, staff and students
have worked on AutoTutor from seven departments. We hold hours of research meetings
each week from folks in different departments.
We could never be able to do this without a supportive administration, notably the
Provost and the Vice Provost of Research. They understand that cutting-edge research
requires interdisciplinary teams that transcend isolated departments. These visionaries
are doing their best to convince department chairs to look beyond their own micro-worlds.
Interdisciplinary research is currently in vogue in funding agencies.
Have students been involved in the project and if so, in what capacity?
Approximately 100 students have worked on AutoTutor research. These students are graduate
and undergraduate students from the psychology, computer science, education, engineering,
physics, English, anthropology, art – the list goes on. These students have been coauthor
on more than 150 publications and 150 conference presentations. Dozens of doctoral
dissertations, masters theses and honors theses have been inspirited by the research
Has the FedEx Institute of Technology been helpful in further advancing AutoTutor?
If so, how?
The Institute for Intelligent Systems (IIS) has been the heart and soul of AutoTutor
development. The 20 or so interdisciplinary faculty provide the intellectual foundation.
We invite students, faculty and the public to attend our “Cognitive Science” seminar
at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays in Room 405 in the FedEx Institute of Technology. This meeting
is the intellectual oasis of the IIS, where approximately 50 faculty and students
from various departments attend, as well as some members of the public.
Tell us about yourself, your educational background and your research background.
I received my undergraduate degree at Florida State University, where I had a major
in psychology and minors in mathematics, linguistics and philosophy. Math and computer
science always came easy for me, but I was intrigued with questions about the mind,
art and linguistics. This broad background prepared me for the interdisciplinary field
of cognitive science, which I pursued in graduate training at University of California
at San Diego. Imagine writing programs that simulate mental mechanisms of memory,
learning, story comprehension, problem-solving and eye movements. The fusion of computational
models and psychology is the essence of what I do. I am most known for my contributions
in discourse and language comprehension, inferences, emotions, question asking and
answering, tutoring, agents and advanced learning environments.
What is your favorite book and favorite author(s) if you have one?
Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams, David Macaulay’s The Way Things Work and Don Norman’s Things that Make us Smart and Emotional Design. Regarding fiction, I have more time for films and theatre than novels in print.
What hobbies do you take part in?
I love documentary films. My wife Nancy and I go to Hot Springs, Ark., each year for
the Documentary Film Festival in mid-October. I love theatre in New York City and
Memphis. Nancy and I travel to NYC two or three times each year to see productions
on Broadway and Off Broadway. We have seats with our name in Circuit Playhouse and
the new Playhouse on the Square. I love to see and play basketball. Each morning I
have an intense 20-30 minute workout of Israeli exercises and full-court basketball
in my driveway.
If you enjoy travel, what is your favorite destination, both nationally and internationally?
I have always traveled a great deal and currently go on about 30 professional trips
each year, hoping to smuggle in some time for fun and frolic. In the U.S., New York
City is my home away from home. I love Europe, particularly driving through the villages
of France, Spain, Germany and Eastern Europe, or the Mediterranean coast. Recently,
my colleagues Xiangen Hu and Zhiqiang Cai have opened my eyes to China.