Chatbots and robots – Students meet real-world AI up close

Issue: Volume 98, Number 6

Posted: 8 April 2019
Reference #: 1H9suu

Artificial intelligence (AI) is going to help shape the future of our everyday lives, and recently around 100 students in Auckland got a taste of how that is playing out, took part in interactive workshops, and saw the career opportunities it presents.

That was followed by workshops where the participants were able to see how AI is already being used for everyday is continuous innovation in the cutting-edge field of AI and New Zealand scientists are among the global leaders. The students interacted via Skype video link with New Zealand-born guest participants based in New York, San Francisco and London, who spoke about their work developing artificially intelligent machines and products.

Organisations such as Air New Zealand, Datacom, Auckland University and researchers from Auckland University of Technology (AUT) presented information about AI and how it was being used through robots, brainwave-analysing headsets, and chatbots.

AI is used in a variety of ways such as creating voice and face recognition software, to read, understand and analyse emotions, and in marketing.

For example, Air New Zealand uses AI for its chatbot, Oscar, a digital assistant that answers customer questions and provides information.

The one-day event at Auckland University was organised by a group of south Auckland students, called Y-Tech?. It’s the latest of three workshops they have organised and run. The next one is about cybersecurity.

Auckland University of Technology KEDRI Research Fellow Zohreh Doborjeh demonstrating how brain signals can be recorded and how the brain inspires Artificial Intelligence technology.

The Y-Tech? team are passionate about technology and their aim is for other students to learn about the career potential in technology, the digital world and new areas such as AI. 

He says it gave him the opportunity to talk to specialists in different fields around the subject of software development. “It was a very new experience for me - very cool.”

The Y-Tech? team was mentored by Edwina Mistry. She says the students have learnt valuable business skills including project and financial management. “They learn skills by creating events and other schools could do this too. It doesn’t have to be a big cost – this one cost less than a thousand dollars to put on.”

Air New Zealand uses AI-based chatbot

An AI-based chatbot was developed by the airline to help customers with information, and it was introduced two years ago. Since then Oscar has had two and a half million conversations, and now has around 5000 interactions a day. It can communicate about 500 topics - way beyond just flight details - and Air NZ says the success rate in providing satisfactory information to customers is 78 per cent. Oscar has a voice also, for customers who want to interact by talking to it.

Air New Zealand Senior Software Engineer Jonathan Ackerman says the chatbot assists with understanding customer feedback, and is still being developed and improved. AI is being used by the company alongside machine learning.

“AI is in two spaces – hard AI and soft AI. Currently, we use soft AI, which is for single transactions such identifying images or voices, and for precisely defined requests.”

The next stage of development, he says, will be to develop the capacity for Oscar to anticipate requests for information and initiate interaction with customers. “They might, for example, be asked if they want to book a vegetarian meal with their flight if they haven’t done so, if they’ve booked that kind of meal on previous flights,” he says.

Jonathan says Oscar can understand multiple accents but has had issues, for example, with the varied use of the word “mate” in different ways in sentences, as the word can have many different meanings.

AI is also used by the airline in many other ways such as for performance monitoring, and understanding why customers miss flights.

He says for students looking to develop a career or skills in this area, advanced digital skills are essential, and coding expertise is helpful, but soft skills are also important.

Here is a conversation that was held at the Y-Tech? event to display the response capacity of the chatbot, when a customer uses a device to talk with Oscar:


“How many airpoints do I have?”


“What flight am I on?”


“You are on Flight 460. Can I help with anything else?”

To demonstrate its flexibility in responding to diverse questions, the customer says:


“Can you tell me a joke?”

Oscar tells a brief joke about an animal.


“Tell me another one.”

Oscar does so.


“What is your favourite plane?”


“A flying boat.”
He then gives some details about the plane.

“Was there anything else you need to know?”


“No, thank you.”


What the students think

Student Max Dang-Vu was one of the organisers of the event and is now studying at Auckland University. He says schools need to help students to develop the skills that will prepare them for a career in technology.

“There is too much focus on exams. Teach the content, sure, but don’t focus exclusively on exams. Students need to be involved in interactive exploration. They need transferrable skills which include digital literacy, but they also need to be able to collaborate, learn fast, to fail fast, network and connect,” says Max.

“Give them projects to work on outside the curriculum, a problem to work on and find a solution for - such as homelessness.”

He says organising the three events has been a huge challenge but also a learning experience for the seven students on the team. “We’ve learnt about product development, collaboration and teamwork, finance and operational skills - and it’s been fun too. We learnt skills by creating events that are successful and which many people attend.”

Student Sok-haing Yung is also one of the organisers. The ex-Aorere College student says AI is a fast-growing field and students and teachers need to be aware of it.

“Rather than, say, focusing on arbitrary maths problems, there are much bigger issues to address and opportunities for students to explore. The events we organise are connecting students with the real world of how science is used in business and everyday life. There are many areas you can go into with AI skills after graduation – such as cybersecurity.”

She says everyone on the project team has both developed new skills and used existing ones. “One of us has great graphic design skills, so she designed the posters and other material.

“We’ve also learnt to be agile. At the last minute, our designated MC had to pull our because of a family issue, but someone else stepped up into her place on the day.”

The pathway skills that are needed

Paul Denney, a senior lecturer in computer science at Auckland University, took part in the AI event, and says digital skills are essential, with maths and physics at NCEA level as the best pathway.

“All STEM subjects teach logical thinking and that is the fundamental skill for entry into computing.”

However he says for students without a computer, the basic concepts can be taught through the Computer Science Field website link) or through link), which provides free teaching materials such as unit plans, teaching videos, curriculum integration activities and programming exercises, as an introduction to computer science.

He says the University of Auckland offers a pathway into computer science, and therefore into specialties such as AI, for students who have had no previous computing experience.

Ministry support

The revised Technology Learning Area and Hangarau Wāhanga Ako go beyond digital fluency and the use of digital tools to support teaching and learning. It is about learning how digital technologies work (the computational thinking), and building capabilities to become creators in the digital world, so that students will be able to use their knowledge and skills to design digital solutions to real world problems.

The Ministry is supporting all schools and kura to be teaching the revised Technology Learning Area and Hangarau Wāhanga Ako curriculum(external link) content from 2020. Make sure that your school or kura is aware of the National Curriculum change and has elected a person to lead person to review what this means for your local curriculum. 

A number of innovative professional supports are available for all levels of readiness and confidence today.  

This includes the Kia Takatū ā-Matihiko | Digital Readiness Programme, which includes a self-review tool and online modules that supports understanding of the new digital technologies and hangarau matihiko curriculum content.

AI in health care

The workshops included a presentation on the use of AI by researchers from AUT who are working on using AI in healthcare, to improve the monitoring of brain activities and neurological diseases.

Students were able to put on the headsets, with readings from their various brainwaves showing up on a projector screen above them. They could see clearly how the lines on the screen changed from even small actions they made such as raising an eyebrow or smiling.

The researchers have developed an AI algorithm to interpret the data coming from the headset. The data can help with recognition of the emotions of the wearer in situations where they cannot communicate, which will assist health workers and care givers. 

Tips for teachers from the youth who attended the event

  • Use project-based learning
  • Make connections to businesses and the IT industry
  • Bring industry to the classroom
  • Encourage students to “fail fast” – tell them it’s OK to try something new and not get it right first time
  • Give them direction
  • Keep it simple – make the goal real and attainable.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 2:37 pm, 8 April 2019

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