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UW team finalist for $1 million prize to hold 20-minute conversation with Amazon's Alexa

A team from the University of Washington is one of three finalists for Amazon's inaugural Alexa Prize and the $1 million grand prize. (Photo: KOMO News)

SEATTLE - The goal is simple but much harder than it sounds: create a computer program that allows anyone have a typical 20-minute conversation with Alexa, Amazon’s digital assistant. Keep it going for 20 minutes or more, the prize is $1 million.

A team from the University of Washington is one of three finalists, and the only team from the United States, competing for Amazon’s inaugural Alexa Prize and the $1 million grand prize.

The competition is designed to encourage the development of conversational artificial intelligence.

More than 100 teams from universities in 22 countries applied, 15 semi-finalists were selected, according to Ashwin Ram, senior manager for Alexa Artificial Intelligent for Amazon.

The UW team, along with collegiate teams from Scotland and the Czech Republic were selected as finalists in August.

Since then, their programs have been available to users of Amazon’s Alexa for both the teams and Amazon to monitor.

The feedback received from users as well as a panel of judges from Amazon will determine the winner.

The winning university will receive a $500,000 first prize, but if the winning team reaches the 20 minute threshold, it will receive the $1 million grand prize as a bonus.

"Just make something that you can talk to for 20 minutes, just talk like to you or me, if you get bored you lose, it's that simple,” said Ari Holtzman ,a UW PhD student and team member. “The goal is to use the abilities of a computer to create human conversation.”

The UW team calls their program Sounding Board. It’s a social bot designed to speak coherently on popular topics. One of the strategies it employs is the ability to change the subject if it doesn’t understand the conversation. It’s a trait many humans do in socially awkward situations.

“It’s kind of like the small talk approach at a party,” said Maarten Sap, a UW PhD student and team member.

The winning team will be announced on Tuesday November 29 at AWS Re:invent, an Amazon Web Services event in Las Vegas.

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