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Meet Iris, India's first AI teacher

March 13, 2024 13:15 IST

'To tell you the truth, we did not expect Iris to make such waves, to get so much attention.'

IMAGE: The unveiling of Iris, India's first AI teacher. All photographs: Kind courtesy Markerlabs

Tall, elegant and clad in a beautiful sari, Iris, the teacher, stood in front of the students, ready to answer any question they might ask.

Though she was expressionless, and her voice emotionless, she answered with panache. And she was comfortable in English, Malayalam and Hindi. She was ready to shake hands with the students as well.

Iris is different from other school teachers. She is India's first AI teacher, a robot created by Shyam Babu of Makerlabs Edutech Private Limited.

Iris was first introduced at the KTCT Higher Secondary School in Thiruvananthapuram as part of the Atal Tinkering Lab, a 2021 NITI Aayog project 'to boost students' extracurricular activities in schools'.

Shyam Babu narrates his creative journey that culminated in Iris and stresses on the fact that he is more of a creator than an entrepreneur.

"I don't look at Iris as an idea or initiative to make money as I believe sharing. Knowledge cannot, and should not be, a money-making business," Shyam Babu tells's Shobha Warrier.

IMAGE: Iris in the classroom.

Robot dreams

Though my father was a businessman and my mother an English professor, electronics was my passion. 

I was always cooped up in my room making some electronic item or the other. My parents had no clue about what I was working on in my room or in the lab all the time.

It all started with making motors run and then making drones. Like many children, my dream was to make a robot. Then, I realised I had to learn programming first.

As my parents gave me the freedom to choose what I wanted to study, I decided on electronics engineering. But I was never very good academically.

One thing that troubled me as a school student was the fact that a majority of the teachers did not have answers to my questions. And because they didn't, most of them would brush me aside. There were some, however, who took the trouble to read up and answer me later.

I felt it was unfortunate that teachers -- rather, our academic system itself -- follow archaic textbooks. What the students study dates back to at least 50 years while science and technology change every day.

IMAGE: A student shakes hands with Iris.

Projects = Money

I decided to study electronics engineering but, more than studying the theory, what fascinated me was doing projects.

It is mandatory for every engineering student to do a project in their last semester but the saddest part of our education system is that a majority of the students do not do these projects on their own. They buy projects from others and submit them as their own. That's the shocking state of affairs in our educational institutions.

As I was involved with the Kerala Startup Mission and passionate about working on projects, I used to get queries from other college students to do projects for them.

It was quite rewarding monetarily as well.

The demand was so much that if I worked three days on projects, I could make Rs 2 lakhs! It quenched my passion too.

IMAGE: A closer look at Iris.

The joy of teaching

At that time, I thought I would continue doing projects and not work in companies.

I also knew I could never be an entrepreneur. I am only a technology person and I do not have the ability to think from the point of view of a businessperson. I do not have the capacity to pitch an idea to someone. I am the backroom person who is happy sitting in my lab and creating something new.

So, if I had to do some business, I needed a good team who would take care of the needs of the business.

When I was to finish my engineering, my professor told me to attend an interview as he felt the job was right for me. So I attended the interview and got the job in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) lab.

My job was working in schools as a mentor. When you share new and interesting ideas with students, they ask questions and the interactions become lively. But if you talk about 50 year old ideas, they will not enthuse the students. I enjoyed my interactions with the students.

But the fun ended with pandemic as there were no contact classes any more. I couldn't continue as I did not consider myself an online mentor.

Anyway, I had decided earlier itself that I would retire at 30. I have seen my mother teaching the same old thing for 20-25 years. I knew I would never be able to do that.

When I resigned, so did Hari Sagar, Amal V Nath and Ram Shankar.


The four of us decided to start our own company. With our experience in the education sector, our plan was to make products that are educative, interesting and fun for students.

We registered our company in December 2020 with Rs 1 lakh and named it Makerlabs Edu-tech Pvt Ltd. The tagline was: Where innovation meets education.

Our first idea was to make educational toys.

The interesting aspect about educational toys is that they are not of the 'use and throw' variety but something that will help a student learn throughout her/his life; a lifelong possession with which she or he can learn coding or electronics or robotics. You could even call it an educational ecosystem.


RAS and the Turtle Bot

Our first product was a robot called RAS, which is a programmable robot with an arm.

Next was Turtle Bot, a toy shaped like a turtle.

The Turtle Bots and RAS were not machine made; I made them by hand and my team sold them to schools.

We participated in the Kerala Startup Mission conferences to get funds but we didn't get any government funding.

The problem we faced was that, though students liked it, we could not make these products on a large scale.

IMAGE: The Turtle Bot.

Makerlabs: The first year

It was a disastrous first year for us. We made just Rs 50,000. Each of us survived by doing projects for college students.

We knew unless we scaled up production, we were going to sink.

Since our clients were schools, when they ordered large numbers. But we had no facility to scale up production. How many products can you make by hand?

Whenever we tried for investment, the first question we encountered was, 'What's your user base?' When we said, 15, they would ask, 'How many are active users?' We had no answer.

With such a small number, nobody was ready to invest in our products.

IMAGE: Shyam Babu with Iris.

Iris, the AI teacher

It all began with a computer programme in AI which answered all your queries.

Then, I decided to make it a teacher who would answer questions from students as I had always been fascinated with such teachers. I also knew where the gap in the education system lay; I had seen it as a student and I had felt it as a mentor.

I had my mother in my mind when I created the AI teacher.

Hari was aware of what I was planning and when he went to the KTCT Higher Secondary School, he asked the principal, M N Meera, whether the school would be interested in having a robot teacher.

At that time, I had not even created 10 per cent of the idea! Though I had the hardware which, of course, is my domain, I was yet to have the perfect software to run the robot teacher.

When I realised that, even after four months, I was nowhere near what I had in mind, I decided to abandon the idea. By then the school had already paid us Rs 50,000 as advance. I was ready to give the money back but the principal was adamant that we go ahead with the project.

I spent the next three weeks working day and night, without food and sleep. I did not even get out of the lab. I worked like a mad scientist. Hari and Amal supported me throughout, ever ready to get me whatever I asked for.

I want the robot teacher to be unique, reacting differently to different students.

I want it to learn and become more and more intelligent -- a teacher kept on learning with each interaction.

IMAGE: Amal Nath, Shyam Babu Iris and Hari Sagar.

How the AI teacher became Iris

The school wanted the name Surabhi but I found that she herself mispronounced her name as Surbhi. She also did not respond to the different ways in which the name was pronounced by different people.

That was when I decided to change her name to Iris, a name that is easy to pronounce. And for me, the name Iris is apt as it represents 'Individual Robotic Intelligent System'.

Though I have currently tuned her to speak in English, Malayalam and Hindi, I will add all the Indian languages soon. Of course, the main language for communication is English.

After choosing a mannequin as the structure, I gave mechanical movements to her hands, head, etc. But there is room for improvement; I have to work a lot more on her movements.

SEE: Iris interacts with students. Video: Kind courtesy Markerlabs

Unprecedented Response

In the early days of February 2024, Iris was taken to school. The children were bowled over but, like I said, she is not perfect yet. In fact, she works like a prototype even now.

I cannot say I am really happy or satisfied with Iris. No creator will be fully satisfied with what they create; you always feel there is room for improvement. I think I may need two-three years of work to improve Iris.

To tell you the truth, we did not expect Iris to make such waves, to get so much attention.

Now, we are getting orders from many schools in India and from many parts of Africa.

We even had an enquiry from a hospital in Sweden who are looking to make Iris into a hospital assistant.

Iris, I would say, is a platform that you can use to create anything -- a teacher, a hospital assistant, a legal assistant or an assistant in a car showroom. The possibilities are enormous!

I don't look at Iris as an idea or initiative to make money as I believe sharing knowledge cannot be and shouldn't be a money-making business.

Feature Presentation: Ashish Narsale/