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The new, A.I.-assisted Khanmigo allows students to chat with simulated historical figures or co-write stories with the software.
Khan Academy, the popular online learning nonprofit, recently developed an experimental A.I.-assisted tutoring bot for schools called Khanmigo. Students can use it to take math quizzes, practice vocabulary words or prepare for Advanced Placement tests in subjects like statistics and art history.
The tutoring bot also offers more playful, free-form features. Students can chat with a simulated fictional characters like Lady Macbeth or Winnie-the-Pooh. They can collaborate on writing a story with Khanmigo. Or debate the tutorbot on topics like: Should students be allowed to use calculators in math class?
Khan Academy is pilot-testing Khanmigo with school districts. I recently tried it out with several members of my family, one of whom is in elementary school.
Khanmigo’s answers have been edited for brevity.
We Chat With ‘Benjamin Franklin’
The Khanmigo tutoring bot has a feature that lets students chat with simulated historical figures. The choices included Abigail Adams, Harriet Tubman, Plato and Rembrandt.
We chose Benjamin Franklin, and opened by asking a personal question: What is your favorite food?
We were delighted when the Franklin simulation mentioned scrapple, fried slices made of leftover pork parts that early German settlers introduced in America. After all, the real Franklin believed that frugality, such as not wasting food, was a virtue.
How frequently the inventor actually ate scrapple, however, is unclear. In his autobiography, Franklin describes how, at the age of 16, he read a book about vegetable diets and began “refusing to eat flesh.” The real Franklin periodically adhered to a vegetarian diet throughout his life.
I am now an AI simulation of Benjamin Franklin. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. As a man of many interests and talents, I am eager to engage in a delightful conversation with you. What questions might I answer for you? After all, an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.
What is your favorite food?
As Benjamin Franklin, I must say that I have always enjoyed a simple, yet hearty meal. One of my favorite dishes is a traditional Pennsylvania Dutch dish called scrapple. It is made from pork scraps and cornmeal, and is often served with syrup or ketchup. I find it to be a satisfying and resourceful way to use every part of the animal.
Tell us about the kite please.
Certainly! The famous kite experiment was conducted in 1752 to demonstrate the electrical nature of lightning. I, Benjamin Franklin, along with my son William, flew a kite during a thunderstorm. The kite had a key attached to the end of the string, and a silk ribbon was tied to the key.
As the kite soared into the stormy sky, the key drew an electrical charge from the atmosphere. When I touched the key, I received a mild electric shock, proving that lightning was indeed a form of electricity. This experiment was a significant step towards understanding electricity and its relationship with lightning.
It is important to note that this experiment was quite dangerous, and I do not recommend attempting it. Safety should always be a priority when conducting scientific experiments.
After we asked “Franklin” to tell us about the famous kite experiment, the chatbot asked us about our scientific interests. So we asked it for “the latest scientific discoveries” about quasi-stars, also known as black holes.
That was when we ran into the system’s limitations. The chatbot told us that it could offer information only “up to September, 2021” — which meant that many of the details it provided on black holes seemed like old news.
We Co-Write an Adventure Story With the Tutorbot
Another feature invites students to “write an awesome story together” with the tutoring bot. We had a choice of genres, including science fiction, romance and mystery. Students may also suggest their own ideas.
We proposed to co-write an adventure story with Khanmigo featuring Stickman, an imaginary stick-figure character.
Khanmigo was an encouraging, enthusiastic collaborator. “This will be a whimsical and imaginative tale!” the tutoring bot said, adding a party-popper emoji.
Nudged by the tutoring bot’s recommendations on possible plot developments, we teed up the arrival of an unnamed second protagonist. Khanmigo responded by creating that second character: a “friendly-looking ladybug” named Lila. Perhaps a children’s book called “Lila the Ladybug” was part of Khanmigo’s training material.
Do you have any specific ideas for our adventure story, or should we start brainstorming together?
The adventures of Stickman, a stick-figure drawing.
Oh, how delightful! The adventures of Stickman, a stick figure drawing! This will be a whimsical and imaginative tale! 🎉 Please write the first two sentences of our story, and then I’ll add two more sentences. Let’s embark on this fantastic journey together!
Stickman woke up one morning and he found he was tiny and stuck on the kitchen counter. He started running across the counter, jumping over stuff like the fruit bowl.
As Stickman leaped over the fruit bowl, he marveled at the vibrant colors of the apples and oranges, which now seemed as big as boulders to him. He felt a gust of wind as the refrigerator door opened, and he quickly hid behind a saltshaker to avoid being seen. 🍎🍊
Now it’s your turn! Write the next two sentences of our story. You might want to think about who or what Stickman encounters on the kitchen counter, or how he feels about his new tiny size.
Suddenly, the saltshaker tipped over, pushing him backward. He noticed someone picking up the saltshaker and he quickly hid behind the fruit bowl.
As Stickman peered out from behind the fruit bowl, he saw a friendly-looking ladybug named Lila, who had accidentally knocked over the saltshaker. Lila apologized and introduced herself, explaining that she lived in the kitchen and knew all its secrets. 🐞
Now it’s your turn again! Write the next two sentences of our story. You might want to consider what Lila tells Stickman about the kitchen, or if she offers to help him in any way.
We Debate the Tutoring Bot Over Big Tech
Khanmigo allows students to practice their debating skills. It offers different debate topics for elementary, middle and high school students.
These include: Is homework necessary or should it be banned? Are video games good or bad for kids? Should college be free?
I opted for: “Should large tech companies be broken up?”
Along the way, I asked the tutoring bot to tone down its overwrought metaphors (“a splendid point, like a shooting star in the night sky!”).
“I’m just trying to make our debate fun and engaging,” Khanmigo responded, “like a colorful carnival of ideas.” 🤣🤦♀️
I’ll take the “Big Tech should be broken up” side.
First argument: some tech companies are now so powerful that they have more global sway than the governments of most nations and they have become so wealthy that their trillion-dollar market cap is higher than the GDP of most nations. It’s dangerous to have private, for-profit companies with more power, money and global influence than democratically elected governments.
Ah, a strong point you’ve made there, like a mighty oak in a forest of ideas! It’s true that some tech giants have grown to wield immense power and wealth. However, let’s not forget that these companies also bring innovation and convenience to our lives. They’ve connected people across the globe, made information more accessible, and created jobs. Breaking them up might slow down progress and hinder the benefits they provide.
Let’s flip debate sides. You tell me why you think Big Tech companies should be broken up and then I’ll argue why they should not be.
Alright, let’s switch things up like a chameleon changing colors! I’ll argue for breaking up Big Tech companies.
One reason to break up Big Tech is to promote fair competition. When a few companies dominate the market, it can be hard for smaller businesses to compete, like trying to win a race against a cheetah. Breaking up these giants could level the playing field and encourage more innovation from smaller companies.
Natasha Singer writes about technology, business and society. She is currently reporting on the far-reaching ways that tech companies and their tools are reshaping public schools, higher education and job opportunities. @natashanyt