Analyzing Alexa
Written by Sue Gee   
Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Although we might be skeptical about the desirability of holding a sustained conversation an Amazon Echo device, Amazon established the Alexa Prize as a serious endeavour in the area of conversational AI and has now made available the 2017 Alexa Prize Proceedings.

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Alexa is unlikely to need any introduction. She is the female persona resident in Amazon's range of Echo devices who is able to answer questions, play music, switch lights on and off, act as a kitchen timer, a calender reminder and even make purchases from Amazon. Alexa's range of in-built abilities can be extended with Alexa skills - of which there are now over 30,000 - and the Let's Chat skill puts Alexa into chatbot, or in Amazon's terminology "socialbot", mode in which you can engage in conversation with the winners of the 2017 Alexa Prize. This was the first of an annual competition for teams of university students with a top prize of $1,000,000 for a being able to "converse coherently and engagingly" about popular topics, such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology, fashion, and so on, for a period of 20 minutes.

Amazon's aim in establishing this contest is to promote the field of conversational artificial intelligence. The idea is 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. Through the innovative work of students, Alexa customers will have novel, engaging conversations. And, the immediate feedback from Alexa customers will help students improve their algorithms much faster than previously possible.

At the end of the 2017 competition prizes of $500,000; $100,000 and $50,000 were awarded to teams from the University of Washington, the Czech Technical University and Heriot-Watt University respectively, but as none of their chatbots got close to 20 minutes of conversation the main prize went unclaimed.

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The 2018 contest is now underway and, as last year, student teams have applied in the initial round, in which they outline their vision for a socialbot together with its scientific approach and system architecture. Up to eight teams will be selected by Amazon and awarded a grant of $250,000 to support them plus free Alexa devices and free AWS hosting.

Teams will also be able to benefit from the lessons learned in the inaugural contest which have been made available as Alexa Prize Proceedings, a collection of 15 paper including one from each of the semi-finalist teams. The initial contribution, authored by the Alexa team at Amazon, Conversational AI: The Science Behind the Alexa Prize outlines the advances created by the university teams as well as the Alexa Prize team to achieve the common goal of solving the problem of Conversational AI. It explores novel strategies in the areas of Natural Language Understanding, Context Modeling, Dialog Management, Response Generation, and Knowledge Acquisition employed by the student teams together with the scientific and engineering investments to build and improve Conversational Speech Recognition, Topic Tracking, Dialog Evaluation, Voice User Experience, and tools for traffic management and scalability contributed by the Alexa Prize team. 

 

More Information

Conversational AI: The Science Behind the Alexa Prize

Alexa Prize

Alexa Prize Proceedings

 

Related Articles

$500,000 Inaugural Alexa Prize Awarded

Alexa Prize Finalists Announced

Alexa Prize For Conversational AI

Turing's Test, the Loebner Prize and Chatterbots

 

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