AI ‘chatbot’ will help displaced people access education online

Research Lives: Dr Anthony Ventresque, Lero, researcher and director of the UCD Complex Software Lab

You research complex software, why is there the need for this kind of research?

“One of the big changes in software in the last 10-15 years has been a move to more complex systems, where you have lots of interactions between components and lots of interactions with users. This means that software engineering has needed to change, so we can build software that can operate well in these more complex environments.

Tell us about a project you are working on at the moment.

My group at the UCD Complex Software Lab is building a chatbot that displaced people in refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan can use to help them continue their education online and build skills related to work. We are working on the project with NetHope and NRC, two NGOs, and with Microsoft, under their AI for Humanitarian Action programme, who initially approached me about the project.


How does the chatbot work?

The person using it “chats” with the software and provides details about their educational background and the kinds of skills they want to develop and the language they have. The system uses artificial intelligence to find and recommend relevant courses online that they can take, that will suit them out of the thousands and thousands of options online. We want to build a sustainable system that can scale up and be useful to the many refugees, including young children, who need more educational support in camps.

How do you ensure that people will want to use it?

We test it with groups of students at each stage along the way and incorporate their feedback. Ultimately we want the system to develop into a learning assistant that can not only recommend courses but also support the student as they do the courses.

What kinds of interests have you beyond software engineering that you bring into your research?

I am very interested in archaeology. I love multidisciplinary research. I recently started a joint project with the UCD school of archaeology called MAAP (Megalithic Art Analysis Project), where I’m developing AI algorithms that can identify patterns among prehistoric symbols on megalithic monuments. I think scientific breakthroughs require collaborations across disciplines.

What do you find rewarding about your work?

It helps to know that what you are building can assist people, and that you are tackling difficult research questions that have an impact on society. Also, I have very good students – they are brilliant technically, they ask good questions [and] they provide another reason to get up in the morning and go to work. I learn a lot from them, and I feel proud to see them growing, to see them develop new code and understanding.”

How do you take a break?

I like to spend time with my family. I also have a big interest in rugby. I used to play it, until my injuries caught up with me. I set up a rugby school for children in my native France. One of those players who discovered the game in this rugby school now plays for the under-20s French national team."

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell

Claire O'Connell is a contributor to The Irish Times who writes about health, science and innovation