TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves

Chatbots: the new college counselors


About Zhehao 

Zhehao Zhou is a forth-year UCLA computer science & mathematics student, also the founder & CEO of Sentinel Tec, Inc, an AI driven chatbot startup company in medical & educational field. Sentinel Tec’s smart patient service chatbot has been adopted by Pacific Dental and 584 associated dental office. Zhehao and his team are now focusing on creating college counselor chatbot using the same AI technology to help high school student on college application.


So a year ago I was helping my friend Mike with his college application. I actually had to do a lot of research because my application process is very different than him given that I applied as an international student four years ago. But I was shocked by the insufficience in knowledge that Mike had about the college application.

But given that he is already at senior year level, well, Mike is a little bit lazy of course. And, but the most important thing he told me is that it’s actually pretty hard to get appointments with his college counselor.

So how hard, exactly? Well the average United States high school counselor has a caseload of 476 students which give them less than half an hour to guide each student during the application season. In addition, even though the information about college applications is very accessible online, you could Google it.

But Mike told me, as well as other high school students as well, if you Google it directly, like some question like, “How much support can I get from FAFSA?” you didn’t get the exact answer. You always find yourself reading those long paragraphs of official texts. They don’t like it.

So Mike’s problem is clear. You can’t, it’s hard to get an appointment with a counselor, it’s hard to do it yourself, and last but not least, a lazy boy. So why don’t we try to solve this problem by chatbotize it?

The word “chatbotize” may sound a little bit strange to you but people are actually very familiar with chatbot these days. You have Alexa, you have Google Home, you have Siri, you’ve got all kinds of chatbots you could talk to, you can check your Weather Channel with a chatbot.

So to “chatbotize” is just to transfer a certain process into a computer human natural language interaction. Basically just you build the chatbot to help yourself with it.

A little bit about my background: we started a startup, a natural language processing startup, years ago. And we’re trying to build a chatbot in different industries. So why not build a chatbot in this to solve this problem as well?

So we start to build a Lex pack, a chatbot, and shipped to Mike a very basic counselor chatbot. The basic functionality, if you ask like, “Hey Alexa, I don’t know which college I should apply to.” And the chatbot will just start asking questions like, “Okay what’s your preference? What’s your major selection? What’s your interests?” And then it’ll give you a bunch of colleges that you’re recommended to.

Then, or if you’re asking questions like, “How do I apply to a certain college?” the Lex will just give you certain steps you should follow or you can ask them details.

So I shipped it to Mike, our team shipped it to Mike. But Mike is very lazy, I literally have to call him every day to talk to him. “Talk to my chatbot, talk to my chatbot, please talk to my chatbot, I want to see how it works.”

Surprisingly it actually works pretty good, because after a while, I found because — we can see everything that Mike’s chatted with the chatbot, and after a while we can, we see that Mike finished off his FAFSA application, Mike sent off his transcript and sent off his SAT score, we are very happy and he started working on his personal essay.

But here’s the problem that kicks in: we’re starting to get the question that cannot be answered by a chatbot, for example this one: Mike asked the chatbot saying, “Hey Alexa, can I include I know two different languages in my personal statement essay?” Well of course you can. But the chatbot doesn’t know how to respond.

And these kind of questions keep coming in and we still realize we have to, so we have to, we are monitoring the chatbot every day to try to manually search those questions and educate the chatbot.

But we soon realized that it’s impossible for us to cover everything. Even though a college application is a very standard process, when it goes into detail it’s very different in the end. So we decided we’re going to build a platform to solve this problem because, see, if you compare a human counselor and a chatbot counselor, the best thing about the chatbot counselor is that it’s always there, it’s 24/7, it’s super efficient, but it’s not so smart yet because it needs the expert to educate it.

But a human counselor cannot be there every day 24/7 to answer a question.

So why don’t we build a platform to use the limited power of a human counselor to educate the chapel and let the chatbot counselor be there 24/7 for students every day?

So we start to build up such a platform and we invited counselors, former admission officers to educate the chatbot and help Mike as well as other students. And we started to get more and more questions, more and more unanswered questions, and we let the expert answer those questions and ship it out.

And nowadays, because — and this works actually pretty well — United States has the top college education system in the world. Millions of brilliant students all over the world’s applying to U.S. colleges.

We don’t want, we want everyone who didn’t get accepted it’s not because they didn’t receive enough guidance, it’s not because they missed some crucial step in the college application. We want at least for college applications, at least for college counseling and guidance can be out there, absolutely free and available for everyone all the time.

We make Wikipedia open-source. We make knowledge open-source to everyone, to the whole world. Why not do the same thing for college applications? Why not extend the human counselor power by the chatbots and let the counselor, let the expert teach the chatbot and then le the chatbot to help everyone who wants to apply for college and let them know the exact steps? Thank you.