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ALICE and AIML for ESL

The fact is that there are more people in the world who want to learn English as a Second Language than there are native speakers available to teach them, even if every native English speaker became a professional teacher. Even then, they couldn't afford to pay us. The solution has to come from automation. Specifically, chat robots, a form of artificial intelligence created to mimic human-to-human online text based chat or instant messenging, have proved to be a safe, economical, and convenient tool for reducing the cost of teaching and practicing English conversation skills.

AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language) is a free, open source standard for creating chat bots like the DAVE ESL bot available from the ALICE A.I. Foundation (www.alicebot.org). Because of its open source approach, AIML is said by some to have captured more than 80% of the world market for chat bot technology. The design principle of AIML is minimalism. In theory, anyone who knows enough HTML to design a web page can learn enough AIML to begin creating a chat robot. ESL teachers themselves are not beyond learning how to train the very bots that their students will be using in future courses.

In fact the primary skill in bot training (being a botmaster) is not technical but literary, that is, being able to write creative, original, witty replies that keep the student engaged and interested in the bot's conversation. The art of being a botmaster is more like being a screenwriter creating a character, than being a computer programmer.

The data we use to train our bots comes from the student conversations themselves. As the ESL students use the bots more and more, we begin to collect a huge corpus of dialog data indicating the most common inputs, in rank frequency, that the students expect the bot to be able to answer. In designing the bot personality, the botmaster addresses these inputs in the order of most to least frequent.

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