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Mike George of Amazon and David VanderWaal of LG talk about the new Alexa-enabled refrigerator at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (Photo Via Webcast)

Amazon Thursday announced the Alexa Fund Fellowship, a program designed to fund and support researchers and universities working on voice technology.

Amazon also announced the first four universities to participate in the new program: Carnegie Mellon University, Johns Hopkins University, University of Southern California, and University of Waterloo. Both Carnegie Mellon and Waterloo have already chosen their fellows and begun offering classes for engineering students, while programs at Johns Hopkins and USC will start this fall.

Alexa Fund Fellows will receive funding, access to Alexa devices and mentoring from an Alexa science team member to develop courses and research focusing on voice technologies like text-to-speech, natural language processing, automatic speech recognition and conversational artificial intelligence. At the end of the year-long program, there will be a demo day for students to show the Alexa team, faculty and their peers what they’ve developed.

University of Waterloo Professor Fakhri Karray works with students to set up Amazon Echo devices in an engineering lab. (University of Waterloo Photo Via Amazon)

Amazon has long sought to crowdsource development of Alexa, which recently topped 10,000 capabilities, or “skills” in Amazon lingo. Amazon decided to open the digital brain up to developers and device manufacturers in 2015. Developers who want to add to Alexa’s abilities can write code that works with Alexa in the cloud, letting the smart assistant do the heavy lifting of understanding and deciphering spoken commands. At the same time, the company rolled out the $100 million Alexa Fund to invest in developers and startups building new experiences with the voice-activated assistant, and it will launch an Alexa accelerator in Seattle this year in partnership with Techstars.

“Voice technology carries enormous promise, as many people know from their interactions with Alexa, the voice service that powers devices like Amazon Echo, “Doug Booms, Amazon’s vice president of worldwide corporate development, wrote in a blog post announcing the fellowship. “Our teams here at Amazon are working hard to unlock that potential, but innovation requires a collective effort, from large companies like ours to two-person startups, and from casual hobbyists to major academic institutions.”

Carnegie Mellon’s Alexa Fund Fellow is Ran Zhao, and he will assist in teaching a class called “Dialog Systems,” where students will learn how to implement spoken language systems. Waterloo’s fellow, Chahid Ouali, will work on technology integration between students and Amazon while supporting faculty teaching classes focused on designing systems with human-like learning capabilities.

At Johns Hopkins, a doctoral student, who will be known as the Alexa Fellow, will mentor and advise students in a new master’s degree program focusing on language technology. USC plans to integrate Alexa with the Viterbi School of Engineering and the school’s Information Sciences Institute as project infrastructure for classes in artificial intelligence.

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