A group of PhD students from Heriot-Watt University are the only team from the UK to be chosen as one of three finalists in Amazon’s $2.5m Alexa Prize.
The Heriot-Watt team are now the only finalist in the UK and competing against Czech Technical University and the University of Washington.
The competition focuses on the challenge of building “a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes”.
The team, What’s Up Bot, received $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices and free Web Services (AWS) to support their development efforts. They also received support from the Alexa Skills Kit team.
Now, the finalist with the highest performing socialbot will win $500,000 with an additional $1m prize being awarded to the university whose team achieves the grand challenge.
Professor Richard Williams OBE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said: “This is a fantastic result for the hard-working students and staff involved in this prestigious competition. This success further enhances our reputation as one of the leading institutions for research and robotics.
“It also links in with our current Year of Robotics, celebrating our pioneering research on robotics, artificial intelligence and human-robot interaction. It also firmly stamps us on the international map for delivering and achieving exceptional higher education.”
Heriot-Watt among top in world for AI
The students were advised by Professor Oliver Lemon and Professor Verena Rieser of the university’s Interaction Lab.
Professor Oliver Lemon said: “This is a wonderful result for our team which demonstrates that Heriot-Watt University is among the top institutions in the world for research on conversational AI and Natural Language Processing.
“The challenge provided an amazing experience for our students to be able to learn about Amazon’s Alexa services and to create and test their own social chatbot.”
Professor Verena Rieser, added: “Through the Alexa Challenge, we have also had unique access to large amounts of real customer data and feedback which has helped the team to improve their system.
“Being part of this challenge has provided our students with invaluable insights and experience in the real-world deployment of a large-scale AI system to real people.”
Student Team Leader Ioannis Papaioannou, said he was delighted to take part, adding: “It is an amazing experience to take part in this coveted competition and we’re all delighted to be have been selected to enter the final. It’s been a privilege working with such a great team.
“I believe that determination, focus and a desire to push the scientific barriers, has helped us get to the finals.”
Competitors came from 14 other universities such as Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Edinburgh, and Carnegie-Mellon. To get to the final, judges looked at the potential scientific contribution to the field, technical merit of the approach, novelty of the idea, and the team’s ability to execute against their plan.
Thousands of Alexa customers conversed with the socialbots on popular topics and their feedback ratings were also used in shortlisting for the final. The winners will be announced in November.