If everything goes according to plan, every student in the United Arab Emirates’ school system will have a personal AI tutor – that fits in their pockets.
It’s a story that involves an element of coincidence, a forward-looking education minister and a tech team led by a chief executive officer who still lives at home with his parents.
In February 2023, the U.A.E.’s education minister, His Excellency Dr. Ahmad Belhoul Al Falasi, announced that the ministry was embracing AI technology and pursuing the idea of an AI tutor to help Emirati students succeed. And he also announced that the speech he presented had been written by ChatGPT. “We should not demonize AI,” he said at the time.
As he spoke, he did not know that an inventor who lived nearby had already come a long way in that pursuit.
Meanwhile, Quddus Pativada, a 20-year-old who lives in Dubai, had already established a company, now called ASI, and built the prototype of just such an AI tutor.
“We were working with Microsoft on finding a partner” for developing an AI tutor, recalls Raghad Aljughaiman, strategic and future planning adviser for the Office of the Minister of Education. “We started having conversations with different partners, startups and big companies in the space of education and learning. And then we heard of a young entrepreneur who is based in the U.A.E., who was educated here and who grew up here. And he had already launched his AI platform.”
“The more we had conversations with different potential partners and assessed their education and technical capabilities, it became clear this is the right partner,” she says. “It’s a solution developed by the students, for the students. And someone who knows the U.A.E. ecosystem as well. He ticked all the boxes.”
Since the age of 14, when he found his textbooks tedious, Pativada had actually been dreaming of ways to learn faster and more efficiently. His first app summarized text to create flash cards. Now he thinks the app he is developing with the U.A.E. Ministry of Education is fulfilling those teenage dreams.
“A tutor really gives a student a leg up outside of class,” he says. “I mean, even I had a tutor in high school, and I saw the difference it made. We want to make that kind of help accessible to every student.”
The Ministry of Education and Pativada see what has become known as the U.A.E. AI Tutor as a way to provide students with 24/7 assistance as well as help level the playing field for those families who cannot afford a private tutor. At the same time, the AI Tutor would be an aid to teachers, they say. “We see it as a tool that will support our teachers,” says Aljughaiman. “This is a supplement to classroom learning.”
ASI is building the U.A.E. AI Tutor with Microsoft’s AI capabilities including Azure OpenAI Service and Azure Machine Learning. The app, which functions in Arabic and English, is designed to teach as many teachers do – by answering one question with information and more questions, drawing the student deeper into the subject matter by responding to the student at the student’s level.
Pativada says that his team, using Azure OpenAI’s GPT-4 API and a custom variant of the U.A.E.’s Falcon model, has altered it so that it is personalized for each user and that it aligns with the U.A.E. curriculum and standards.
“We developed a model that was able to steer responses of a larger model like GPT-4 and personalize them to the student,” he says.
“Students can be confident they’re using a tool that understands the same content they study, and it references it,” he says.
Saif Hassan Ibrahim, 16, is an Emirati high school student who has been using a closed beta version of the U.A.E. AI Tutor for four months. He participated in the U.A.E.’s largest national science competition three times with projects to fight climate change, winning prizes each time. He says that even in the sophisticated research involved in his most recent project, the AI tutor has been invaluable in helping him grow as a scientist.
“I basically synthesized a novel material that efficiently processes carbon dioxide in a single step and explored its use in a new model for CO2 capture facilities,” he explains.
He says that what surprised him was as the AI tutor got to “know” him, it worked with him as a “copilot” at his level.
“Over time, as you basically engage with the responses to questions,” he says, “it seems to adapt to you and your understanding level. … It formulates questions in an order that aligns with the knowledge I already possess, allowing me to learn at my current pace.”
Soon, a small cohort of students will test a closed beta version of the AI tutor for the U.A.E. schools. That app uses U.A.E. curriculum, is bilingual in English and Arabic, and all data collected from its use will be housed in the U.A.E., where Microsoft has a datacenter. “That’s exactly why we are partnering with Microsoft. Microsoft is our trusted partner when it comes to data,” says Aljughaiman.
Microsoft will be announcing the availability of the Azure OpenAI Service in the cloud region of the U.A.E. later this year. The U.A.E. Ministry of Education and other organizations in the Emirates will be able to leverage the power of Azure’s cutting-edge generative AI capabilities with local data residency, meeting local requirements.
For the U.A.E., the priority is to help students and give teachers a tool they can use to help students achieve excellence. “The key thing is to provide support to the students,” she says.
Pativada, whose parents immigrated to Dubai from India, has taken time off from school to work on his company. When he describes the speedy ascent of ASI, he sounds surprised himself. His first investor in 2021 was one of his school counselors, who contributed enough money to get the company incorporated. Within weeks, he had several hundred thousand dollars more in his company’s bank account from other investors. More money and media attention followed.
While Pativada is enjoying the frenzied pace of running a startup, he says he’s glad there are some foundational pieces already in place.
“That’s where we’re glad Microsoft exists,” he says. “You know, Microsoft’s got that infrastructure, we’re just simply building on top of it. We’re sitting on the shoulders of giants in that aspect.”
The responsibility of developing an app that will be used by children from 9 to 18 years old is sobering, he says. “When we’re working with governments, especially when it comes to minors, we make a key point of, before any student uses it, testing it pretty thoroughly. We’re giving it to a small user group that’s using it in an enclosed setting. They’re not taking it home yet.”
Ghala Alblooshi, 16 and a senior in high school, is another of the Emirati students testing the app.
Alblooshi was researching the capabilities of climate stations, and she asked the AI tutor whether a climate station can provide useful information for agricultural purposes. “It gave me a whole paragraph about how it can help farmers and be useful for plants,” she said. “It pointed me in the direction of other things I could look for. The good thing about it is that when I asked it a question, it asked me a question.”
When asked if she thought she’d like to be able to use the AI tutor more often, she said “I only hope it will be available before I graduate.”
Aljughaiman says that the Ministry of Education has many considerations as the U.A.E. AI Tutor is developed.
“We want to make sure this AI tutor embodies the values of the U.A.E. and the education system here,” she says, “and we need to make sure it is safe, that it is accurate and that there is student engagement and satisfaction. How often do they use the tool? Finally, and this is more of a long-term goal, is overall improvement in their learning outcomes. And that comes with some time.”
While Quddus Pativada is focused on making sure the U.A.E. AI Tutor is a success, he’s also thinking about the big picture.
He says that until now, only wealthy people could afford to hire a tutor for their children, and having a tutor can give those students a considerable advantage over their peers.
To make access affordable and possible for more students, ASI is deliberately designing other models of its AI tutor to function well at 2G (second-generation wireless technology) or even without Wi-Fi so that students in developing countries will be able to access it as well.
“I think, eventually, we’ll be able to scale it in a more optimal way, where every student has this sort of personal tutor that’s a lifelong tutor,” Pativada says.
Top photo: Ghala Alblooshi, 16, uses a closed beta prototype of the U.A.E. AI Tutor in Dubai. Photo by Chris Welsch.