The Future of Learning: A Free AI Tutor for Everyone

As Meta’s top AI exec moves into edtech, a few words on students, teaching, and learning.  

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

At work I do whatever it takes to make Sizzle successful – coding, PM, IT support; at home I tutor my four kids and they can’t wait for Sizzle to replace me,” says Jerome Pesenti, only half-joking about his new venture. A veteran scientist and engineer in the areas of AI for more than a quarter century, he was Meta’s VP of AI until June 2022 after which he’s been applying his deep technical knowledge to the problems of education.    

Jerome has been involved with artificial intelligence, natural language processing, and search for the past 25 years. He most recently led the AI team at Meta — pursuing fundamental and applied research in AI and making Meta products safer and more valuable to people through the use of AI. MetaAI’s main contributions during his time there were PyTorch, AI for content moderation, very large models for ads and recommendations, and FAIR’s research breakthroughs.

Previously, Jerome was co-CEO of BenevolentAI, which develops novel AI technologies that will change how drugs are discovered. Before that, he managed a global team of researchers and software engineers within IBM Watson. His team was doing research and developing state-of-the-art software in question and answering, dialog, speech, natural language processing, and automated machine translation. Their biggest research focus was on leveraging deep learning for all these tasks. They were also responsible for the Watson Developer Cloud, which exposes these technologies as easy-to-consume cloud services.

He joined IBM through its acquisition of Vivisimo, the search and text analytics company he co-founded in 2000. Vivisimo grew organically to 130 employees and had many large corporate and government customers such as P&G, Airbus, J&J, DIA, SSA, and the U.S. Air Force. Vivisimo’s technology was based on the machine learning research Jerome conducted with his co-founders in the CS department of CMU from 1998 to 2000. 

On the policy side, Jerome served as co-chair of an independent review on the growth of AI commissioned by the UK government. This report led to a sector deal – and most of its recommendations have been since implemented by the UK government.

In this EdTech Digest exclusive, Jerome talks about the hype and reality of AI in education, what he is up to with Sizzle AI and high schoolers, his thoughts on technology’s role in education, his advice for education leaders as they approach AI in education, what he thinks about the future of learning and what’s just ahead for his own company.  

You’ve been involved in AI for longer than most, a quarter century now, and most recently led AI for Meta. Where are we at in terms of the Gartner hype cycle of AI in education (trough of disillusionment)? Could you draw on your background and put AI in education into perspective?

I don’t think Gartner’s hype cycle applies here. GenAI is taking education by storm because the consumers, the students, are adopting the technology on their own – not through their schools or their teachers or any kind of edtech B2B offering.

‘I don’t think Gartner’s hype cycle applies here. GenAI is taking education by storm because the consumers, the students, are adopting the technology on their own – not through their schools or their teachers or any kind of edtech B2B offering.’

And that adoption has quickly surpassed the early adopter stage, a majority of students are already using some form of GenAI on a regular basis. That’s here to stay. But whether it’s one more tool in their toolbox, some form of a more advanced calculator, or something that will fundamentally change the way they learn, that remains to be seen.

Before IBM, you founded a company. Now you’re at it again with Sizzle AI.  I see your beta app is out and you are taking steps toward a grander vision. You recently released a free app using LLMs to help learners work through any homework problem – very cool! How does that work, in simple terms, and what is that larger vision?

Sizzle is a free interactive app that uses artificial intelligence to help learners build critical thinking skills and a mastery of underlying concepts. There are two key areas where Sizzle helps:

1. Learners can use Sizzle to solve problems in math, science, chemistry, physics and more – particularly problems requiring several steps to solve them. Rather than simply providing answers to problems, Sizzle guides users through each step of solving a problem, using positive and reaffirming language to build confidence and excitement in learning. Using its chat functionality, users can also ask Sizzle questions – without hesitation or fear of judgment.

2. With the Sizzle Feed, users can learn, review and refresh their knowledge of topics in short, easy-to-digest chunks, anytime – whether at home, on the go, or just waiting around. 

SIZZLE AI

While our early version of Sizzle is focused on helping high school students succeed in doing their homework, preparing for tests and mastering topics – our longer-term vision is to help learners of all ages, with content that is engaging and personalized to their unique needs and learning styles.

Broadly, what do you see is tech’s role in education?

Technology, particularly AI, has the ability to help us teach and learn more effectively and ultimately, innovate the education industry. 

What makes you say that? 

The current education system has not changed in centuries and doesn’t cater towards what’s most effective for students, but what’s most feasible for educators and administrators.

‘The current education system has not changed in centuries and doesn’t cater towards what’s most effective for students, but what’s most feasible for educators and administrators.’

Even when we know how to teach better (e.g., reading with decoding vs holistic approach) it takes decades for that learning to be adopted. This is also why many parents in the U.S. are now taking their children out of the educational system – because a few hours of personalized 1:1 time can be as effective as a day in school. GenAI will disrupt that system and has the potential to make a big dent in the equity challenge. While very few privileged students have access to 1:1 tutoring which we know works, we can now imagine a world where every student has access to a personalized AI tutor.

Any advice you’d give to those sorting through the whole AI in education wave? What would you say to other leaders, to educators, to learners? 

More and more students are embracing GenAI systems every day, and teachers are also finding them useful for creating lesson plans and more. We believe that’s a good thing and encourage educators and schools to support their students in using these innovative tools to enhance their learning and critical thinking. At the same time, it’s also crucial to educate students about the limitations of these tools and how to use them effectively. By embracing AI’s advancements, we have a chance to leapfrog our teaching methods and achieve the personalized learning we’ve been striving for. We can also give more time back to educators, to spend less time on lecturing, testing and grading, and more time on the classroom interactions – e.g., collaboration, hands-on learning – that digital learning will never replace.

What’s ahead for Sizzle, for the future of learning? also what trends are you looking at, what areas are you looking to focus in, that excite you, and is there anything else you’d like to tell EdTech Digest readers about the near and mid-term (2024, and beyond this year) future of learning? 

The future of learning will be personalized – if social media can create a feed tailored to you after just half an hour, why can’t our learning tools do the same? With AI creating an endless number of ways to engage with educational content, learning will not be focused on passing a test, but by practicing and mastering subject material.

‘…if social media can create a feed tailored to you after just half an hour, why can’t our learning tools do the same? With AI creating an endless number of ways to engage with educational content, learning will not be focused on passing a test, but by practicing and mastering subject material.’

Our goal in 2024 is to get closer to our vision of providing an engaging, personalized and effective learning app that people choose over mindlessly scrolling on social media. For the immediate future, our focus is on expanding beyond STEM subjects Sizzle specializes in right now to cover every aspect of learning, to support learners of all ages beyond high school and college students and to add support for more languages. We’re also planning to raise another round of funding and grow the Sizzle team by nearly double in 2024 to make all of this possible. 

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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