An Interview with Korbit’s CEO, Iulian Serban (Part 1/2)

May 24, 2019 — Korbit Technologies held its launch party on a beautiful and sunny Friday afternoon at the Norman House. The audience was diverse and very engaged raising many questions surrounding the launch of the new Korbit platform, with the goal of transforming and democratizing education through AI-powered tutors. Korbit also shared the news on their recently published course on machine learning powered by an AI-tutor.

“We’re really building a platform, where teachers from around the world can create courses and then students from around the world can enroll and study and that’s how we want to change education.” Iulian Serban, CEO of Korbit

In the first half of the event, Korbit’s CEO, Iulian Serban was interviewed by CMO, Mihai Gheorghian. The format of the interview was a story-like flow resembling the dialogue format of Korbit’s AI-powered conversations. A long Q&A period was opened after the interview and many interesting questions arose that touched on the future of education and on how AI is going to bridge the gap between students and content and the democratization of education. The second half was dedicated to trying out the new Korbit platform at two workstations, meeting the Korbit team and networking. The event was a success and sparked both curiosity and creativity from the audience. Many teachers already showed interest in collaborating with Korbit on creating new courses powered by AI-tutors. This post outlines the first part of the interview with Iulian and will be followed by a second part with the rest of the questions.

Korbit Launch Part 1
Mihai (CMO) and Iulian (CEO) answering questions at Korbit’s Launch Event

A One-On-One Chat with Iulian

Mihai: So let’s start from the beginning. What is Korbit and why should we care?

Iulian: Right, so Korbit is a tech startup, started about two and a half years ago and Korbi is this intelligent tutor. An intelligent tutor is a personalized interactive tutor that sits with students and teaches them through one-on-one conversations and problem-solving activities. So that’s really the short answer. What is an interactive tutor? Obviously the easiest way is to just try it. Most people have never seen one.


“An intelligent tutor is a personalized interactive tutor that sits with students and teaches them through one-on-one conversations and problem-solving activities. So that’s really the short answer.” Iulian Serban, CEO at Korbit

Mihai: Okay, so it’s an interactive tutor that is going to teach you a particular course. So, how is this different form for example Udemy or Coursera because I know these are online learning platforms and many people currently use them?

Iulian: We actually get this question all the time. What’s the difference between Korbi and online courses? MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) are a completely different way of learning. In online courses you get video after video and you’re supposed to just absorb that material. It’s no different than a teacher, preaching inside a classroom the same material over and over again and expecting students to absorb it passively. It’s like you’re assuming the student’s mind is a sponge, which needs to be filled with water and other stuff but that’s just not how we learn. An intelligent tutor is going beyond that. It’s trying to make everything very attractive and very personalized. Korbi will give students questions and solve them one-on-one with the students. You’ll get a question and try to solve it – and if you get stuck, Korbi will give you hints, she will give you feedback and try to help you. And the more you work with Korbi, the more she can personalize the whole experience. She learns more about you as a student with every interaction you have and that just optimizes your learning in a way that videos could never do.

Mihai: So it’s a much more interactive way of learning right, it’s not just a video. You take that content from the video and you have all these interactions that happen afterwards that help you learn and retain the information better. I’m a big fan of online learning actually. I learned how to code online. But I found that a lot of times I would just watch these videos and maybe like a month later, I would completely forget the material. While I was watching the videos, I was like “I got this. I know what this means.” But a bit later on, it would just seem to vanish. So I see the value when you’re talking about interactions.

Iulian: There are a lot of studies about online learning and we know that it’s not as effective as we would like it to be. What you’re talking about is the “illusion of learning” – it’s when you finish the video and you get to the next one and you think you’ve absorbed that material. The problem is that this learning doesn’t work very well. You study something and next month you’ve forgotten about it, because it’s all passive and unpersonalized.

Mihai: Yeah, I think from my experience from learning to code, it was really the idea of putting it into practice and actually using that knowledge to create programs and develop apps. That’s really what helped me score a job as a developer.

Iulian: So you had to show them what you programmed, not the certificate. And you learned from the programming, not from the videos. This is a great example, and this works great for programming courses. But how would it work for chemistry, biology, history or social sciences? You can’t program in those fields, so how do you internalize it, or get to the deeper understanding? And how do you work through the material? In most cases, the answer is that there’s no way online to do it.


“I think MOOCs tried to democratize education and they’ve done a great job and moved really far, but what they have really democratized is the access to content. But, now AI tutors are actually going to take the next step and democratize the education itself and not just the content. ” Iulian Serban, CEO of Korbit

Mihai: Ok, so we have this interactive, personalized interactive tutor that’s going to help us study. What’s the end goal of Korbit? Right now, we just launched the world’s first machine learning course powered by an AI tutor. Where do you see Korbit in the next 10 years and what’s the end goal?

Iulian: We’re hoping that Korbit is going to be the next generation of online learning. Forget about video platforms and start interacting with the AI tutors that are always with you, always personalizing the content, always giving you problems and activities to solve one-on-one. That’s really the future and where we’re going. We hope that in a couple of years, maybe 5 or 10 years, millions of people will be learning this way and these would be people that never before had access to a university education. Maybe they couldn’t afford it, maybe they grew up in a country where it’s just not available. But these would be people who can now afford it and, now, because the learning is so much better, the certificates actually mean something and it’s able to help their personal lives and drive their socioeconomic status. To summarize, it’s a way to democratize education. These tutors are really low cost, most of it is automated so it’s a really different way of delivering education. I think MOOCs tried to democratize education and they’ve done a great job and moved really far, but what they have really democratized is the access to content. Everybody can enroll and watch videos but that’s not the same as getting an education. But, now AI tutors are actually going to take the next step and democratize the education itself and not just the content. That’s really our mission, that’s where we’re going and our team is going to work on this until we get there.

Mihai: When I met Iulian, he talked about the mission of the company that is democratizing education and that’s really what resonated with me and one of the reasons why I joined Korbit. Let’s take a step back and talk about how this idea started. How did Korbit start?


“When I met Iulian, he talked about the mission of the company that is democratizing education and that’s really what resonated with me and one of the reasons why I joined Korbit. ” Mihai Gheorghian, CMO of Korbit

Iulian: I’ll just tell my story. There are other founders in the company but since we’re sitting here, I’ll tell my story. About 10 years ago, I was working for an NGO, a non-profit, which worked in education in developing schools and training teachers in developing countries. Education, in many countries is really the foundation of society and it’s really what drives a lot of social development. And so I became conscious of its impact on society, both on healthcare and climate change. A lot of societal issues can be traced back to ignorance and lack of education. For me, education has always been very important. But, I think the story of Korbit started two years ago. I’ve been doing my PhD at the Mila, the Quebec Artificial Intelligence Institute. I’ve been studying there for 5 years, working on dialog systems – systems like SIRI, Google Now, systems that talk to people and try to understand them and help them in their daily life. And then I got together with Ekaterina Kochmar, who’s a researcher at Cambridge University and she’s been working for half a decade, maybe even more, on applying machine learning to education. For example, they have a great project on teaching English writing skills to people. So we got together with Ansona, who’s a former teacher, and we started brainstorming how this new technology with such a massive accelerated progress can be used in order to advance education which is important for our society. One and a half years ago we got funding. We were funded by Real Ventures, (one of the VCs located at Notman House) and two California-based VCs. And then things really took off. We had a very small demo, we got funding and then we put together a team of machine learning engineers and software engineers and really started building it. Over the course of the last year, we’ve been around universities in Montreal and, even, in India and we’ve tried it out with 200 students. So we went out again and again, trying it out and always trying to put the students first – while thinking about how  can we build, not just fancy technology, but technology that actually works to teach better and to motivate students.

Mihai: That sounds great. So in a nutshell, you really sold the investors on this idea of democratizing education right? From my understanding, it was a very unsophisticated demo.

“There are a lot of studies about online learning and we know that it’s not as effective as we would like it to be. What you’re talking about is the “illusion of learning” – it’s when you finish the video and you get to the next one and you think you’ve learned that material. ” Iulian Serban, CEO at Korbit

Iulian: Yea, it was really…it was really dumb [laughs]. It was actually a global warming demo and people could answer questions about global warming. Obviously, people should know about this, so we built a global warming demo. The other part was actually Yoshua’s support. So, I’ve worked with Yoshua for 5 years now. We’ve published a dozen or two dozen papers in different conferences together. He actually went out and talked to some of these investors and put in a really good word, like “Hey, you should speak to Iulian, he’s a really good researcher with a vision. If you help give him some money, something very big could happen”. I think that was a big part of it too. It’s not just me having a dream, it’s also the people vouching for me.

Mihai: What can we expect from Korbit in the upcoming months? What’s our plan?

Iulian: We just released the first machine learning course powered by a machine learning tutor. This is really the first one in the world. If you go anywhere else, it’s either videos or programming tutorials. And we hope lots of people, thousands of people, will enroll and try it out. By the way, with every new student enrolling, it’s fed back into the tutor, into the machine learning system which retrains itself and gets better and better. So when you start studying, you’re indirectly helping other students to learn better. And that’s why you should go and share it with your friends. The more people use it, it’s not just better for our startup and for us to build more courses, but the better for the system and the better for future students to use it. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re building this machine learning course, it’s online now, and it’s going to get better and better. And the next step is really to build a lot more courses. Not just machine learning courses, but to have courses in all the sciences, social sciences,humanities and more. There are so many things that can be taught with interactive and personalized learning. We’re just scratching the surface here. We’re really building a platform, where teachers from around the world can create courses and then students from around the world can enroll and study and that’s how we want to change education.

Part 2: Coming Soon

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