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UW team wins $500,000 prize from Amazon for conversational bot

The UW Sounding Board team (left to right: Hao Fang, Hao Cheng, Ari Holtzman, Mari Ostendorf, Maarten Sap, Elizabeth Clark, Yejin Choi) wins Amazon’s inaugural Alexa Prize. (Photo credit: University of Washington)

SEATTLE - A team of University of Washington students and faculty has won a $500,000 prize from Amazon after winning a competition designed to produce an artificial intelligence agent capable of coherent and sustained conversation with humans.

The goal of the competition was 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 an additional $1 million.

The UW team was one of three finalists, and the only team from the United States, competing for Amazon’s inaugural Alexa Prize.

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 UW team developed Sounding Board, a conversational agent designed to provide engaging and informative conversation and to transform how people interact with everyday devices in their homes.

The UW's Sounding Board socialbot achieved an average conversation duration of 10 minutes and 22 seconds - longer than any other team in the competition. Students involved in developing Sounding Board will share the $500,000 prize.

The runner-up team Alquist from Czech Technical University in Prague received a $100,000 prize. The third-place team from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, received a $50,000 prize.

"Our philosophy in developing Sounding Board was to bring a variety of relevant content into a natural conversation,” said team leader and electrical engineering doctoral student Hao Fang. “Ultimately, we hope Sounding Board can become a conversational gateway to online information that users enjoy talking with.”

“The students started from scratch, with no experience building a dialog system or working with Alexa skills, but together they brought a breadth of perspectives on language processing and a passion for understanding both the technical and human factors challenges of conversational AI,” professor Mari Ostendorf said.

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