IBM Watson teams up with Elmo

Apps built on IBM Watson’s cognitive computing platform could make Sesame Street’s Elmo a personalized tutor for preschoolers, reading and analyzing cues in real time and responding with engaging educational activities.

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Credit: Sesame Workshop

IBM's Watson cognitive computing platform is heading into the classroom, thanks to a new partnership between Big Blue and Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group that produces Sesame Street.

This week, IBM and Sesame Workshop announced that they have entered into a three-year research partnership aimed at developing new tools to deliver personalized learning experiences for preschool-age children.

[ Related: Why early STEM education will drive the U.S. economy ]

"Really the goal of the partnership is to bring adaptive learning to the next level, creating a new category of educational platforms that taps into the power of cognitive computing," says Harriet Green, general manager of Internet of Things, commerce and education with IBM Watson.

In an interview, Green described the joint venture as "two unbelievably trusted brands ... teaming up to make significant advance in childhood education."

IBM is tapping Watson for other educational projects for older students, but Green explains that the firm set its sights on preschool-age children in response to a mounting body of research highlighting how much the brain develops in those early years.

"We've been looking for areas in which we can really do good, and of course the educational environment is absolutely key, and it has coincided with significant research -- not only from IBM but from others -- [demonstrating] really how critical the age zero to six is," Green says.

What can be expected to emerge from the partnership between Watson and Elmo

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Green stresses that it is only in its early stages, but envisions the development of intelligent, adaptive applications that could serve as personalized learning aids in the classroom or at home.

Still, she has some ideas for what a commercial product might look like that marries the beloved Sesame Street characters and the cognitive-computing capabilities of Watson, which burst onto the scene in 2011 when it bested two all-time champions on the quiz show Jeopardy.

[ Related: How IBM Watson apps are changing 7 industries ]

"Imagine a very plush Elmo toy that engages directly with a child, listens and responds, uses information to create playful activities," Green says. "As skills are mastered, because Watson continues to iteratively learn, Elmo can provide new activities."

The idea -- whether it's Elmo or a reading aid or any other educational application -- is to analyze response from the child in real time and tailor personalized, engaging content based on the child's interest and aptitudes.

"The amazing thing about Watson is it allows that Socratic, interactive capability to come alive," Green says.

Green won't offer an estimate for when a commercial product might materialize from its research with Sesame Workshop, though she emphasizes that it's a long-term partnership with plans to develop applications iteratively over the coming months and years, eventually going into the classroom to test them in the field.

[ Related: IBM brings Watson's cognitive computing to sports ]

Issues like the revenue split from any commercial effort are still fluid, Green says, though she prefers to talk about the social benefit that could arise from the latest in a series of Watson "moonshots" -- IBM's term for the cognitive-computing projects it has been launching with the aim of tackling knotty challenges in areas ranging from healthcare to energy to education.

This story, "IBM Watson teams up with Elmo" was originally published by CIO.

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