Heriot-Watt University has confirmed its reputation as a world leader in artificial intelligence and robotics after reaching the final of Amazon’s prestigious global competition, the Alexa Prize. A nine-strong team, named What’s Up Bot, finished in third place with their highly sophisticated, artificial intelligence software named Alana, which can understand and respond to human conversation.

Heriot-Watt was the only UK university to reach the final three having fended off more than 100 entries from 22 countries including the likes of Harvard and Princeton. The team of PhD students from the Interaction Lab in the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences finished behind fellow finalists, the Czech Technical University and eventual winners, the University of Washington, at a ceremony held in Las Vegas yesterday.

Professor Oliver Lemon, team co-leader, praised the tireless effort of the students, saying: “It is, of course, disappointing to miss out on this award but I’m immensely proud of everyone for reaching the final three of this hugely competitive international competition.

“Heriot-Watt is known as a world-leader in artificial intelligence and robotics, and we have helped cement this growing reputation by competing against some of the most celebrated universities in the world. As co-leader of the team, it has been an honour to work with such a talented group of students who I believe will now go on to have an even greater impact in the field of artificial intelligence.”

The Amazon Alexa Prize is an annual university competition dedicated to advancing conversational artificial intelligence. It is named after the Alexa voice command system that powers the Amazon Echo. This year’s competition focused on the challenge of building a ‘socialbot’ that could converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes.

Since April this year, thousands of Alexa customers have been putting the software through the ultimate test by conversing with all of the finalists’ socialbots on a host of popular topics. They then gave their feedback based on whether the conversation flowed naturally and if the technology was up to the task.

On the final day of public testing, Heriot-Watt’s Alana system gained the highest average rating of all the teams, based on hundreds of conversations with Amazon Alexa users.

Professor Verena Rieser, co-lead of What’s Up Bot said the team had exceeded all expectations:  “We were the only UK University represented in the final of the Amazon Alexa Prize, which in itself is a tremendous achievement. I’m extremely proud of the students who have invested a great deal of time and effort.  All have made significant sacrifices, with some even putting their studies on hold in order to take part.  Hopefully, through our involvement in this competition, we will inspire the next generation of computer scientists!”

Heriot-Watt University has an established reputation as a world leader in artificial intelligence and robotics – an industry both the Scottish and UK Governments have identified as a key growth area. The University’s research is contributing towards the drive to realise its industrial potential in this rapidly evolving sector.

Professor Richard A. Williams, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said: “The Amazon Alexa Prize has provided us with a global platform to showcase the extraordinary talent we have at this University.

“Throughout 2017, Heriot-Watt has been celebrating the Year of Robotics and this latest success – being the only UK university to reach the final of this major global competition – cements our place as a world leader in artificial intelligence and robotics. We will look to build on this achievement in the coming years as we strengthen our position as a globally integrated university.”