Amazon announced today that it would give out cash prizes to college students that could come up with the best chat bot. This is obviously part of Alexa. Essentially it’s a project that would produce a program that makes it more natural for people to converse with digital assistants. The entire prize would total at $2.5 million.
The whole competition is centered around a Turing test kind of approach. If the conversation feels natural enough, as if you’re talking to a person, the team will win. The conversation could be about anything from pop culture to current affairs and philosophy to scientific breakthroughs and small talk. The milestone to reach is that the program should be able to converse with a person “coherently and engagingly” for 20 minutes. The team to build that bot will get a $500,000 prize. The team’s university will received a $1 million prize and the remaining million dollars will be split up equally ($100,000 a piece) among ten teams that didn’t quite make it. These teams will be sponsored by Amazon, receive Alexa enabled devices, help from the Alexa team and free access to Amazon Web Services.
“A socialbot that can converse coherently for 20 minutes is unprecedented and at least five times more advanced than state-of-the-art conversational AI…This challenge and the immediate feedback students will receive on their best ideas from millions of engaged Alexa customers will make what we previously thought impossible possible.”
-Rohit Prasad, Vice President & Head Scientist at Alexa
Conversational AI is becoming more and more important in the grand scheme of things. The flood of apps and sheer amount of commands you have to get through in your entire day is starting to pile up. I mean sure, for the small stuff that your phone learns about you, you can have your favourite sports team’s score, the weather, the latest news and updates on your most visited blogs with one swipe. But say you want to book a flight. You have to go through your account login, select a day, compare prices, select a seat and pay from your debit/credit card. All that should just be as easy as “Ok Alexa, book me a flight to Cleveland for Thursday morning”. The assistant should just tell you the price of that ticket along with the details to verify if you want to buy it and then when you reply Ok, just do it. That’s how easy it should be.
The goal is this, to make conversational UI the norm and through the collaboration of these young college students, usher in a new age of conversation with our smart devices.
So Amazon’s Alexa assistant has grown quite popular this year. It is one of the four pillars of Amazon’s core business, having sold over 3 million Echo speaker units. And it recently gained some indie cred because it was featured in the popular geek show, Mr. Robot where it comforted, or rather gave company to the depressed FBI agent, Dominique DiPierro after she had been in a traumatic shooting incident. The conversation was deeply personal and the end of the world came up during the three and a half minute scene. Alexa was almost a real character/cast member in that scene.