Heriot-Watt takes centre stage on Tomorrow's World Live!



L-R: Siobhan Duncan, Dr Christian Dondrup, Professor Oliver Lemon and PhD candidate Ingo Keller.

Our student and academic team have appeared in a live, one-off special of BBC's science and technology programme Tomorrow's World on BBC 4.

Professor Oliver Lemon from the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences staged the BBC's first live chat with one of the world's most sophisticated conversational A.I systems, named Alana.

The programme also featured NAO robots which are used in Heriot-Watt's public outreach activity to help engage young people in STEM and MiRos, a trans-generational companion robot pet.

Commenting on the appearance, Professor Lemon said: "Appearing on Tomorrow's World Live was a wonderful opportunity for the University and our school in particular to showcase our research in conversational A.I. systems.

"Our system is among the most advanced in the world but creating coherent dialogue between a human and a machine, handling all the nuances and subtleties of language, still has a long way to go. We are building Alana's understanding of language all the time.

"In the future, systems like Alana will act as our personal assistants and companions, helping us in our everyday tasks and supporting communication with robots. Conversational AI systems can also be used in care applications, for example prompting people to take their medication, and even helping to reduce social isolation.

"We hope that our appearance on the programme will help inspire others, especially young people, to consider a career in computer science, A.I. and STEM subjects in general."

Members of the public are currently chatting live to Alana in the United States as part of the Amazon Alexa Prize, a global university competition which is dedicated to the advancement of conversational artificial intelligence. Speaking to the system through their Amazon Echos, the public, along with a panel of Amazon experts, have already voted Heriot-Watt's system as among the best in the world with our student team reaching the final three from over 100 initial entries, for the second year running.

The competition challenges teams to develop a software capable of understanding and responding to humans in a socially intelligent manner covering many different topics of conversation such as news, music, movies, and celebrities. The result of the Alexa Prize will be announced at the end of November.