Pioneer of conversational AI is awarded Honorary Degree



An Italian and US engineer best known for his pioneering advances in the field of conversational artificial intelligence has been recognised with an Honorary Degree. 

Dr Roberto Pieraccini received a Doctor of Science from Heriot-Watt University on Tuesday, December 10 for his work and the significant impact made on industry.  

Dr Pieraccini is a technology expert in the fields of speech recognition, natural language, dialogue and human-machine interaction.

He graduated in December 1980 in Electrical Engineering from the University of Pisa, Italy, with a dissertation in the field of digital data transmission.

After receiving his Honorary Degree, Dr Pieraccini said: “For years I have been following the innovation and scientific progress carried out by Heriot-Watt. I am deeply honoured to receive this lifetime award and humbled to join the group of illustrious honorary graduates of this University.”   

After a number of years working as a research scientist at various laboratories from Italy to the USA, such as Bell Labs and IBM Research, he became the Chief Technology Officer at SpeechCycle in 2005 - a company specialising in sophisticated technical support systems based on voice recognition technology.

In 2012 he took up his post as Director and CEO of the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI), at Berkeley, California.

He then went on to Director of Advanced Conversational Technology at Jibo, Inc. in 2014-2017 - becoming a pioneer of the first consumer social robots for the home.

Roberto is now the Director of Engineering for the Google Assistant in Zurich where he has worked since March 2018.

Principal and Vice Chancellor Professor Richard A. Williams said: “I would like to congratulate Roberto on his overwhelming contribution and his dedication to the engineering and science community.  He is undoubtedly an expert in his field of Artificial Intelligence and inspires the next generation of young academics.

“Here at Heriot-Watt, our internationally renowned experts are designing some of the world's most advanced robots with outstanding capabilities in Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Autonomous Systems, and Human-Robot Interaction.

“Heriot-Watt and the University of Edinburgh jointly run the Edinburgh Centre of Robotics, a remarkable £100M investment supported by more than 40 industrial partners, with state-of-the-art facilities for global researchers. This is now set to become the UK's NATIONAL ROBOTARIUM cementing Edinburgh's reputation as a global centre of excellence for robotics.

“An example of a major project is our Offshore Robotics for Certification of Assets Hub (or 'ORCA Hub'), which is the leading consortium developing robotics technologies for use in extreme and hazardous environments.”

Roberto is a fellow of Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the international Speech Communication Association, and the recipient of several industry awards.

In 2016, he received the Primi Dieci (First Ten) award from the Italian-American Chamber of Commerce dedicated to the 10 most prominent Italian-Americans in science, art, and technology. 

He is also the author of “The Voice in the Machine: Building Computers that Understand Speech,” published by MIT Press in 2012, and of around 150 publications and patents.

Graduations took place at Heriot-Watt's Edinburgh campus between Saturday, December 7 until Tuesday, December 10 2019.

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Susan Kerr

Communications Officer

T: 0131 451 3242