Kukac uses AI to make sure no student – or employee – is left behind

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

—John Donne, Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions

Penned nearly four centuries ago, these words still resonate, reaching through history to reiterate our need for connection — our need to be known and understood. Good literature and moving poetry routinely transcend the time and condition of its writing to express more universal truths.

But in these grand stories, in these complex metaphors, small details and bits of meaning can be lost. In an ocean of thought, it’s easy to forget about the grain of sand. It’s easy to see the forest and miss the trees.

And in a time of global, digital transformation, it’s easy to forget the living, breathing person sitting at the other end of the screen from you.

Roberto Francisco, Chief Executive Officer at IBM Business Partner Kukac is trying to help us remember.

Empowering through empathy

“It’s all about connecting to the individual,” explains Francisco. “We want to change how schools and businesses interact with the person – how they support them. We want to make education and industry all about valuing what is unique and individual about each of us. We want to bring empathy into the discussion.”

But empathy isn’t always easy. It takes time and effort to forge a deep level of personal understanding — time that can quickly scale beyond feasibility for large-scale institutions that must cater to the needs of thousands if not millions.

Take the education of a nation’s youth, for example.

“Brazil has 50 million students – more students than many countries have citizens,” explains Francisco. “And to make sure that you are helping each of these students reach their full potential, you have to treat them like individuals. So we invented a socio-emotional analysis tool that uses AI to help schools know what these kids need to grow.”

The newly-developed Speck offering uses IBM Personality Insights and IBM Watson Tone Analyzer technology to transform the writing and words of students into thorough, nuanced profiles, granting teachers and administrators unprecedented insight into the motivations and perspectives of learners.

“It’s incredible the impact that this work can have,” adds Francisco. “We have studies that indicate that if you provide the average student with proper socio-emotional support, you’ll see a 26 percent improvement in cognitive performance – math, science, history.”

But it’s not just about better marks. “We have a lot of unhappy students here in Brazil. And these unhappy young people get into trouble, they drop out of school, they argue with teachers and get into fights,” says Francisco. “They can cause a lot of harm to their futures.”

By having at-risk students interact with the Speck platform, schools can better address larger issues than an isolated classroom outburst. As Francisco clarifies: “We can make recommendations of how to deal with the young person. What not to do with them. What kind of groups you should steer them towards – groups where they’d naturally participate. You can help them to thrive.”

Not a file. A person

Of course, education is only a fraction of the potential that the Speck platform offers. “We wanted Speck to understand people throughout their lives,” continues Francisco, “when they enter the workforce as well. Companies can use it for hiring to see who would be a good fit. You can use it to build small, effective teams within a larger business. Manufacturers can identify workers that are at higher risk for an accident and get them the training they need.”

“We even have a specialized version of Speck,” he adds, “called Champ, that we use for football – soccer for you Americans. It can identify young players that can be groomed into team leaders and stars. Speck lets us make these connections. And we believe that when you connect to the person, you can help them become more than they are. And that’s an amazing thing.”

Never stop learning

With so much focus on growth and development, it comes as no shock that Francisco has undergone a rather elaborate life journey, himself. “I founded the company back in the 1980s, before there was an internet. And since then, we had to transform, we had to move into new areas. Then in 2013, we had to transform everything about the business.”

He continues: “Because of the shift in technology, we changed our name. We changed our location. We changed our staff. And a couple of years later, when we visited an IBM conference in the US, we saw that AI was coming, and we knew we had to change again.”

In 2015, the business launched an internal team to begin evaluating cognitive-based solutions and how it could adapt to this new paradigm. In 2016, the firm began incorporating IBM Watson technology into its offerings, and by 2017 all of the company’s business opportunities were built around Watson solutions. “You can never stop growing as a person,” concludes Francisco, “or a business. You constantly have to adapt and improve, and these challenges will follow you throughout your life. You have to get a new mindset.”

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