Creating Artificial Intelligence: An Imaginarium course from the July holidays


The recent July holidays saw gifted girls from Years 5 to 9 learn how artificial intelligence (AI) drives robotics. The unique aspect of this Imaginarium course was applying a concept that is quite ‘futuristic’ at a school level, as education is always following the industry. This course allowed students to start to move ahead with the industry, as a generation who will grow up with these technologies through social media, search engines and personal assistants such as Siri. Girls who attended the course were from a range of schools around Western Australia.

 Guest expert Salil Ahuja, from IBM, facilitated the session assisted by his colleague Aline Cunha. Salil has been employed at IBM in the USA and Australia for 10 years and has worked on Artificial Intelligence technology for the last five. His goal is the adoption of smarter technologies like AI and the cloud in businesses. He often works with robotics equipment in his home which can be quite entertaining for his wife, Lisa, who is the School Chaplain at Perth College. In a recent conversation, she spoke of Salil’s love of technology. She mentioned sitting in their living room and being surprised when TJ Bot, a robot Salil was programming from another room, came to life before her eyes and started speaking to her.

Salil started the course by introducing the girls to his team of robots. He explored the concept of AI and used film clips to provoke questions about its use, the ethics of using it, and how it might progress in the future. He explored everyday life integration of AI, identifying practical applications. The group also discussed the use of new home AI such as Alexa and Google Home and experimented with Salil’s own Alexa AI.

Salil told the girls stories about the projects he has worked on over the years and demonstrated how AI is helping experts expand their awareness and understanding of information. Some of the examples he showcased were Watson helping write songs with Alex the Kid, with Watson to Sesame Street as well as Watson on TED Talks. Thought-provoking conversations emerged on how it could be used in the future and how these uses would be positive developments in society.

Salil explored a range of terminology with the girls and ascertained the difference between Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Intelligence (MI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP). Questions poured in, the girls’ curiosity peaking in an area that is rapidly developing and prominently discussed for an imagined future. The girls were surprised to learn about the first milestone in AI, in that it was achieved in 1956. Exploring a timeline of milestones in AI identified significant leaders in the field and their successes and failures along the way.

Salil demonstrated how facial recognition technology can identify or verify a person from a photo of their face, with a few of the girls trying the technology for themselves. The technology accurately provided age and gender information, though the clarity of the photo was important in ascertaining this information, with light streaming in the windows altering the first attempts and causing inaccurate results.   

Over the course of the day the girls worked through a range of tasks. With machine learning all around us in the form of chatbots, digital assistants, search engines and spam filters, the girls used Scratch with AI and machine learning to create their own versions. The student mentors who supported the girls on the day were given the opportunity to build chatbots that industries use, creating complex links in their programming.

 They programmed a NAO robot (known at Perth College as ELLIOT) using voice and facial recognition as well as Choreographe software, after a demonstration from student mentor Eden, based on her Imaginarium projects from earlier in the year.

The girls also built and programmed a TJ Bot, an open-source project that allows critical and creative thinkers to explore the potential of IBM Watson, bringing it to life utilising a Raspberry Pi as well as add-ons including a microphone, camera, servo motor and RGB LED light.

Salil was really impressed with how quickly the girls picked up the concepts and how diligent and proactive they were in executing their examples. He enjoyed the way they could articulate what they knew, how quick they could move through activities, and how they could identify specific areas in which they would like further challenge. We are most grateful for Salil and Aline’s time, expertise and enthusiasm in sharing their knowledge and supporting the girls in learning more in this rapidly changing area. 

Through the Imaginarium, we continue to seek opportunities for gifted girls to explore areas they are passionate or curious about, through a range of topics they have identified in questionnaires completed at the end of courses.