Amazon has revealed the three university team finalists competing for the inaugural $2.5 million Alexa Prize.
The competition, first announced last year, challenges students to build a “socialbot” that can have intelligent conversations through the company’s digital brain, Alexa, about pop culture and news events.
Using the Alexa Skills Kit, teams had access to numerous content sources to build their bots’ knowledge base. Owners of Alexa-powered devices like the Echo and Echo Dot could test the bots by saying “Alexa, let’s chat about,” and then picking a topic like baseball, celebrity gossip or scientific breakthroughs.
The competing bots, anonymously chosen when given the “Alexa, let’s chat about” prompt, were graded based on a number of criteria, including ratings from Alexa customers, ratings from judges, depth and breadth of topics covered, and appropriateness and accuracy of responses. The bots were built by 12 different university teams supported by Amazon.
The finalists include Sounding Board, a team from the University of Washington — just nearby Amazon’s HQ in Seattle — and Alquist, a team from Czech Technical University in Prague. Both bots garnered the highest average customer ratings during the semifinal period of competition. A “wildcard team” selected by Amazon — What’s up Bot from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland — was the third finalist.
“On behalf of the entire Amazon Alexa organization, I want to thank all of the Alexa Prize teams for their creativity, passion and contributions to both AI science and delighting Alexa customers,” wrote Ashwin Ram, a senior manager for Alexa AI, in a blog post. “We will be publishing their technical papers in the First Annual Alexa Prize Proceedings to enable all teams to share their innovative ideas with the scientific community.”
The winning team will be announced in November at Amazon’s big Amazon Web Services event, AWS re:Invent. The first place prize is $500,000; Amazon will give another $1 million to the winning team’s university if its bot can converse coherently for 20 minutes.
The competition is another example of Amazon crowdsourcing artificial intelligence on Alexa. Alexa Voice Service lets manufacturers integrate Alexa into their products. The Alexa Skills Kit encourages third-party developers to build skills for Alexa. 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.
Alexa currently has more than 15,000 skills.
Amazon also just launched the Alexa Accelerator, a new Seattle-based program supporting early-stage companies that are working on B2C and B2B technologies related to Alexa. The accelerator is part of Amazon’s $100 million Alexa Fund, which launched in 2015 year and is used by Amazon to invest in companies that will push the boundaries of voice-based interaction.