$500,000 Inaugural Alexa Prize Awarded
$500,000 Inaugural Alexa Prize Awarded
Written by Sue Gee   
Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A team of students from the University of Washington has won the inaugural Alexa Prize and presented a cheque for $500,000 at AWS re:Invent. The $1 million prize for being able to sustain a conversation for 20 minutes wasn't won on this occasion.

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As we reported when it was announced in September 2016, the Alexa Prize is an annual contest for university students to build a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans.

The initial stage of the competition was submit a Statement of Intent for the Socialbot together with details of the technical approach they intended to use. Over 100 teams from 22 countries participated in this stage and their entries were evaluated on the potential scientific contribution to the field together with the the technical merit of the approach, novelty of the idea and the team’s ability to execute against their plan. Amazon then selected 12 teams to sponsor, awarding each of them a $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices, free AWS services, and support from the Alexa team. Some other teams took part without sponsorship and a total of 15 teams took part in the semi-finals in which the chatbots interacted with Alexa customers are were ranked on a 5-point scale for being coherent and engaging.

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As a result of these ratings, two teams, Alquist from the Czech Technical University and Sounding Board from the University of Washington were chosen as finalists. A third team What's up Bot from Heriot-Watt University was selected by Amazon to complete the line up and the Let's Chat Alexa Skill was opened up to more customers so that the bots could hone their conversational skills in time for the finals. According to Amazon  since June, Alexa Prize has consistently been among the Top 10 skills by usage among all third-party skills in its Alexa Skills Store.

During the finals at AWS re:Invent the chatbots interacted with by "professional conversationalists" as well as three professional judges.

 

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The winning team, Sounding Board achieved an average conversation duration of 10:22 minutes and an average score of 3.17 (out of 5) from the judges. This earned them $500,000 to share between the team. The runner up, team Alquist had an average conversation length of 3.55 and an average score of 2.72 and was awarded $100,000. . What's Up Bot managed a slight longer conversations, 4:01 on average, but a lower average score of 2.36 and the tea, was presented with $50,000.

From this year's results it is obvious that there is still work to be done to win the maintaining a coherent and engaging conversation for 20 minutes. A $1 million research grant prize is on offer from Amazon to a university for its Grand Challenge of maintaining a coherent and engaging conversation for 20 minutes.

In the blog post announcing the 2017 winners, Ashwin Ram who leads the Alexa Prize writes:

While we’ve certainly come a long way from the early work by Joseph Weizenbaum on Eliza back in the ‘60s, it’s still Day 1 for conversational AI. Each day we’re delighting customers as they engage with Alexa, but the work by our scientists and engineers to make conversations with her more natural, simple and fun continues.

Technical papers from all the Alexa Prize semi-finalist teams are to be published in the first annual Proceedings of the Alexa Prize and these may shed light on why Amazon is prepared to hand out such large amounts of cash for a skill that seems unnecessary - a 20-minute conversation is something many of us would prefer to truncate or go out of our way not to initiate.

Next week the application period for the 2018 competition will open and prospective participants have until January 8th to enter. With the $1 million prize still on the table, Amazon is hoping for even more entrants second time around.

 

More Information

Announcing the 2017 Alexa Prize Finalists

Alexa Prize

Alexa Skills Kit

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