The inaugural Alexa Prize, a university student competition announced by Amazon last year is entering the home stretch with the unveiling of the three team finalists. This initial competition focuses on the challenge of building a socialbot and is worth $2.5 million. The socialbot that emerges from this challenge is expected to be capable of intelligent conversations using Amazon’s digital assistant, Alexa.
The teams involved were tasked with enabling conversations about current affairs and pop culture and were given access to the Alexa Skills Kit with a variety of content sources which they used to develop a knowledge base for their bots. With this knowledge base the bots should be able to interact with Alexa-powered devices when prompted with “Alexa, let’s chat about” followed by a particular topic like sports, weather or celebrity gossip.
The grading process was aggregated through ratings from judges, ratings from Alexa users, accuracy of responses, how appropriate the responses were and depth of topics covered by the bots. The final three teams, chosen from 12 university teams that were given full support by Amazon, are; Sounding Board, a team from the University of Washington, Alquist, a team from Czech Technical University in Prague and What’s up Bot from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland. The first two teams were chosen for scoring the highest customer ratings and the third through a “wildcard” selection.
In a blog post, Ashwin Ram, a senior manager for Alexa AI, thanked all participating teams for their passion, creativity, and contributions to both AI science and for satisfying Alexa customers during the competition. He added that technical papers from all the teams will be shared with the wider scientific community through publication in the First Annual Alexa Prize Proceedings.
The winning team will take home $500,000 and an extra $1 million donated to the team’s university if its bot can chat with Alexa in a coherent manner for at least 20 minutes. The big announcement will be at AWS re:Invent, an Amazon Web Services event to be held in November.
The Alexa Skills Kit, which is open to third-party developers who want to build skills for Alexa, has been central to this competition enabling Amazon to crowd-source artificial intelligence which is critical for Alexa. Amazon has expanded its reach by allowing manufacturers to integrate Alexa into their devices through the Alexa Voice Service. With over 15,000 skills bult into Alexa, it has grown largely due to the option given by amazon for developers who want to add to Alexa’s abilities to write code that works with Alexa in the cloud, simplifying ways in which the smart assistant deciphers and understands spoken commands.
Further, Amazon has strengthened Alexa’s base by launching Alexa Accelerator, which is part of the $100 million Alexa Fund. Accelerator is a program that supports start-ups that are working on B2C and B2B technologies specifically related to Alexa while Alexa Fund invests in companies that dedicate their effort in developing voice-based interactions. The fund was launched in 2015.