Alexa Prize Finalists Announced
Written by Sue Gee   
Sunday, 03 September 2017

The three teams that will compete for the inaugural Amazon Alexa Prize, worth $500,000 come from the Czech Technical University in Prague, the University of Washington in Seattle and Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.


As we reported when it was announced last September, the Alexa Prize is an annual contest for university students to build a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes using the Alexa Skills Kit.

Amazon received over a hundred applications from universities across 22 countries. Having evaluated them on the following criteria:

  • the potential scientific contribution to the field
  • the technical merit of the approach
  • the novelty of the idea
  • the team’s ability to execute against their plan

Amazon selected 12 teams to sponsor, awarding each of them a $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices, free AWS services, and support from the Alexa team. A further six teams took part without sponsorship.

During the Initial Skills Development period, from November 2016 to the end of March 2017 the 18 teams developed their Socialbots and feedback on this phase was provided from April to June. Then, in a 6-week semifinals period, which ended on August 15 the socialbots were given a "live" test in which  Alexa customers interacted with the socialbots by saying “Alexa, let’s chat” to any Alexa powered device resulting in hundreds of thousands of conversations.

Competing socialbots were anonymously invoked in response to this utterance. At the end of the interaction, customers were prompted to provide a rating from 1 to 5 stars (5 being the highest) on how they felt about speaking with that socialbot again. These customer ratings determined two of the teams moving on to the finals. Alquist from the Czech Technical University and Sounding Board from the University of Washington.

Amazon also selected a wildcard finalist based on a combination of the following criteria: 

  • Ratings from Alexa customers
  • Ratings from Amazon judges
  • Depth and breadth of topics covered
  • Appropriateness and accuracy of responses
  • Scientific merit as determined by the content of the technical paper

and chose What's up Bot from Heriot-Watt University.

According to Amazon's announcement:

Beginning August 31, you can experience their socialbots by saying “Alexa, let’s chat” to any Alexa powered device....your interactions and feedback will still be crucial to helping the three finalists continue to improve their socialbots.

While this skill is live on it hasn't reached the UK yet.

The three finalist teams will compete in November at re:Invent 2017 in Las Vegas when they will engage in conversation for 20 minutes on popular topics with three "interactors" and observed by three judges for a $500,000 cash prize for the best conversationalist. Amazon will give another $1 million to the winning team’s university if its bot can converse coherently for 20 minutes.

Conducting a conversation takes two, as I observed last year, so the outcome probably hinges to a large degree on finding the the right humans to act as interactors. How many of us would really welcome spending 20 minutes engaged in conversation with a disembodied stranger rather than reading a book, listening to music or watching a film.

Is the ability to chat a worthwhile skill that merits the additional $1 million prize that Amazon has on offer?




More Information

Announcing the 2017 Alexa Prize Finalists

Alexa Prize

Alexa Skills Kit


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