University students in Amazon Alexa Challenge



(l-r) Jose Part, Amanda Cercas Curry, Ioannis Papaioannou, Igor Shalyminov

A group of Heriot-Watt computer Science PhD students has visited the Amazon headquarters in Seattle as part of the Amazon Alexa Challenge, a competition for university students dedicated to accelerating the field of conversational AI. Alexa is the voice service that powers Amazon Echo.

Twelve university teams were chosen and sponsored by Amazon to compete in this inaugural competition from over one hundred applicants from 22 countries. This year's competition focused on the grand challenge of building a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes. The winning teams will be announced later in the year.

It was a great opportunity for our students to get some insights in the research performed at Amazon.

Dr Verena Rieser

All applications were reviewed and evaluated based on the criteria of: the potential scientific contribution to the field, the technical merit of the approach, the novelty of the idea, and the team's ability to execute against their plan. The sponsored teams received a $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices, free Amazon Web Services (AWS) services to support their development efforts, and support from the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) team.

Amazon said that the idea behind the competition was for participating teams to advance several areas of conversational AI including knowledge acquisition, natural language understanding, natural language generation, context modeling, commonsense reasoning and dialog planning. Through the innovative work of participating students, Alexa customers will have novel, engaging conversations and that the immediate feedback from Alexa customers will help students improve their algorithms much faster than previously possible.

As part of their visit, the Heriot-Watt team interacted with Amazon researchers and learnt about new innovations within the Amazon Alexa/ Echo device, the new drone programme, and got the chance to visit one of Amazon's robotic fulfilment centres. Mike George, the Vice President of Alexa Amazon, welcomed the students and gave an inspiring speech. 

Dr Verena Rieser, the faculty advisor who accompanied the trip, said,  “It was a great opportunity for our students to get some insights in the research performed at Amazon and meet the other teams competing in this challenge. The competition ends in October and we continue to work very hard on this task.”