Amazon: Students, we'll give you $2.5m for a chat-up, AI?

Chatbot interaction needs to be 'natural', though

head of 50s-style robot

Amazon is offering teams of university students the chance to claim their share of a $2.5m prize for developing the best “socialbot” capable of holding a natural language conversation.

The Alexa Prize, detailed by Amazon chief technology officer Werner Vogels on his personal blog, will see university teams slug it out in a conversational AI challenge that is open for entries now and will run until the firm’s annual AWS re:Invent gathering in November 2017, where a winner will be announced.

As the name suggests, the competition revolves around Amazon’s own Alexa voice technology, featured in the Echo smart speaker recently released in the UK. Those taking part will get special access to new Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) application programming interfaces (APIs) with which to develop their socialbot.

The winning team stands to get its mitts on a $500,000 first prize, while a further prize of $1m will be awarded to the winning team’s university if their socialbot achieves the tricky challenge of “conversing coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes”, something that even many humans find difficult.

In other words, their socialbot will not only have to understand what users are saying to it, but also come back with a natural sounding response. This is no trivial challenge when actual speech is involved rather than just text exchanges, as with early examples of AI chatbots such as MIT's ELIZA.

For the runners-up, there is a consolation prize of a $100,000 stipend each for up to 10 teams along with Alexa-enabled devices, free AWS services to support their development efforts, and support from Amazon’s Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) team.

The ultimate goal of the competition, according to Vogels, is to “advance several areas of conversational AI including knowledge acquisition, natural language understanding, natural language generation, context modeling, common sense reasoning and dialogue planning”.

Amazon’s aim is that Alexa users will experience novel, engaging conversational experiences, although if the technology is being developed by students, users are more likely to be drawn into exchanges about Star Trek, Real Ale, and the Lord of the Rings.

Any teams that fancy their chances have until October 28 to submit an application via Amazon’s website.

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