Boston, M.A., USA, 12th March 2019: Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton T.D., today announced the renewal of an international research contract between Microsoft and Lero, the SFI Irish Software Research Centre and University College Dublin (UCD), designed to help refugees in the Middle East access relevant education courses online.

Under the programme, which uses the latest in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Lero researchers at UCD will work in collaboration with NGOs NetHope and the Norwegian Refugee Council to further develop a ‘chatbot’ to help displaced people access courses that fit their individual personalities and ambitions in life. 

The Irish developed programme is currently in early testing at refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, where there are more than 1 million refugees, mostly displaced from the war in Syria.

Speaking from MIT, Boston M.A. today, as part of Science Foundation’s Ireland’s St Patrick’s Day programme to promote Ireland’s global research capabilities, Minister Bruton said, “Technology is transforming how we live and work, but also how we learn. This project is an incredible example of the potential of technology to increase access to education. By using cutting edge artificial intelligence, Irish researchers are leveraging the power of technology to help the most disadvantaged fulfil their potential.” 

“Because of the war in Syria many young people have had little or no schooling for several years,” commented Dr Anthony Ventresque, Lero researcher and Director of the UCD Complex Software Lab. “Working with Microsoft, we have developed a chatbot in Arabic and English called Hakeem. This provides young refugees with the persona of an online older brother or sister to guide them, anywhere and anytime, to the right skills training and academic content, from language and entrepreneurship, to coding or a trade.”

Ross Smith, Director of Skype for Good at Microsoft added, “This important work is a result of a great ongoing partnership with SFI, Lero and University College Dublin to research and understand how we can apply AI for good and leverage technology to help young people in need access education and learning opportunities online.”

Microsoft has made a $115 million commitment to put its cloud and AI tools in the hands of those working to address some of society’s biggest challenges. AI for Good is an initiative made up of three programs — AI for Accessibility, AI for Earth, and AI for Humanitarian Action — and is part of its effort to ensure that AI is used to advance society.

“This is a terrific example of the contribution of the applied research which is being conducted in Ireland through our SFI Research Centres,” commented Prof Mark Ferguson, Director General of Science Foundation Ireland and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government of Ireland. “It is a clear demonstration of the role, impact and opportunities that scientific research can create for society.”

The research project was last week shortlisted for the 2019 US-Ireland Research Innovation Awards, a joint initiative of the American Chamber of Commerce and the Royal Irish Academy. Now in their fifth year, the awards recognise excellence in research innovation, creation and invention by an organisation, as a result of US Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in Ireland.