IT Division expects to launch chatbot this fall

Media Credit: File photo by Olivia Anderson | Photo Editor

Officials said they are aiming to launch the chatbot, MARTHA, by next semester after spending several months upgrading the bot’s infrastructure.

The IT Division is still developing an instant messaging robot that students tested out for the first time last semester.

Officials said they are aiming to launch the chatbot, MARTHA, by next semester after spending several months upgrading the bot’s infrastructure. The IT division ended the program’s one-month pilot phase in September and is now reviewing user feedback and enhancing the system’s software before officially launching the service, officials said.

Loretta Early, the chief information officer, said officials are working to grow the chatbot’s knowledge to include additional IT services and information from outside departments. The pilot bot allowed students to ask questions like how to reset passwords or how to register devices on GWplay, the University’s streaming and gaming network.

“The process for adding new knowledge into Martha will be ongoing and will be by request from other departments, and through continued student feedback,” Early said in an email. “As with any AI platform, the system will continue to learn about the University over time.”

She said the upgraded chatbot will also support auto-fill and will allow users to transfer from the chat to a live help desk employee during business hours.

Early said that during the chatbot’s pilot period in the fall, the service handled more than 4,500 chats – more than half the number of phone calls to the IT division over the same period. She said 89 percent of those who answered a follow-up survey about MARTHA indicated that they would like the service to become permanent.

More than half of all users filled out the follow-up survey and requested that the service include expanded knowledge of IT services, room locations, office hours of several departments, financial aid and dining options, Early said. The financial aid office plans to launch its own chatbot this fall that operates separately from MARTHA.

Artificial intelligence experts said an extended chatbot development period will ensure the service is the most effective it can be.

Mary Frances Coryell, the vice president of sales and business development at the higher education chatbot developer, said it can take several weeks for a team of IT staff to ensure the chatbot retains comprehensive knowledge of a division or department.

When a team starts adding information to a chatbot’s database, the process can take longer than expected as staff realize that they need to add more resources to make the chatbot useful, Coryell said.

“A bot is only as good as the content it has knowledge of,” she said.

She added that a chatbot could help the University anticipate students’ complaints and needs. Chatbots collect data on the questions they answer, and the data can be used to help administrators decide what issues to tackle next, Coryell said.

“Then what you can begin to do is take the opposite direction and you can begin to be proactive in your service to your students,” she said.

Ehsan Hosque, a professor of computer science at Rochester University, said programming the chatbot – an “intuitive” interface for artificial technology – can take a long time because staff have to conduct research to discover how people react to the technology.

He said developers should take their time working on the chatbot because a chatbot cannot be re-launched if it doesn’t work properly. He said staff should verify that the chatbot is easy to use ahead of an official premiere by utilizing focus groups and similar testing methods.

“You have only one chance to get it right,” he said.

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