With $2.5 million dollars on the table Amazon's new Alexa Prize, an annual competition for University students, could be the stimulus to making significant breakthroughs in conversational AI.
Originally launched in November 2014, Alexa is the cloud-based service that gives a voice and other abilities to the Amazon Echo and other devices.
While this isn't Amazon's first competition centred on Alexa, it has already run a series of bi-monthly Alexa Skill Contests on Hackster.io with devices as prizes, it is the first one with a sustained time period (over 12 months), substantial cash on offer and a specific goal - that of giving Alexa conversational artificial intelligence.
The goal of the inaugural competition is to build a “socialbot” on Alexa that will converse with people about popular topics and news events. The team with the highest-performing socialbot will win a $500,000 prize. Additionally, a prize of $1 million will be awarded to the winning team’s university if their socialbot achieves the grand challenge of conversing coherently and engagingly with humans for 20 minutes.
This video gives more of the thinking behind the Alexa Prize:
Registration is open from now until October 28th and in this period teams of students enrolled as full-time undergraduates or postgraduates need with a sponsoring Faculty Adviser from their universities are required to submit a Statement of Intent for the Socialbot together with details of the technical approch they intend to use.
On the basis of these submissions, up to ten teams will be sponsored by Amazon and their universities will receive a $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices, free AWS services, and support from the Alexa team. Using the Alexa Skills Kit, which as we reported in June 2016 is available to any developer interested in using it. They will then have six months for the Initial Skills Development Period at the end of which their socialbots have to submitted to Amazon for certification. Those that gain certification will then proceed through a series of three feedback period during which the bots will be able to interact with Alexa users,
Amazon expects that:
Participating teams will advance several areas of conversational AI including knowledge acquisition, natural language understanding, natural language generation, context modeling, commonsense reasoning and dialog planning.
A prize of $500,000 will awarded to the top performing socialbot but that is not the ultimate reward. The grand challenge for the 2017 Alexa Prize is to create a socialbot that converses coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics and news events for 20 minutes and this has an additional $1 million prize.
In fact the standard device used by chatterbots ever since the original Eliza program, which is to turn the user input into the output delivered by the bot - can quite easily result in coherent and engaging conversation, and Siri and Cortana have meanwhile paved the way for engaging in lucid exchanges about the weather and politics, so there is a good chance that an Alexa socialbot could win the grand prize in the first annual contest. Twenty minutes conversation is, however, a pretty long stretch for the human user so the outcome may hinge on finding three individuals qualified to be the Interactors for the Final Event to be held in November 2017, in connection with AWS re:Invent 2017 at which at least three finalist teams will compete.
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