Student team announced as only UK finalists in $2.5 Million Alexa Prize

A group of PhD students from Heriot-Watt University are the only team from the UK to be chosen as one of three finalists in Amazon's $2.5 Million Alexa Prize

The six strong student group, from the Interaction Lab in the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, were originally chosen from over 100 entries from 22 countries world-wide.

They go forward to the finals with Czech Technical University and the University of Washington.

The competition focuses on the challenge of building ‘A socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes'. 

The team, What's Up Bot, received $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices and free Web Services (AWS) to support their development efforts. They also received support from the Alexa Skills Kit team.

Now, the finalist with the highest performing socialbot will win $500,000 with an additional $1 million prize being awarded to the University whose team achieves the grand challenge.

Professor Richard Williams OBE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said:
“This is a fantastic result for the hard-working students and staff involved in this prestigious competition. This success further enhances our reputation as one of the leading institutions for research and robotics. It also links in with our current Year of Robotics, celebrating our pioneering research on robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and human-robot interaction. It also firmly stamps us on the international map for delivering and achieving exceptional higher education.”

The students were advised by Professor Oliver Lemon and Professor Verena Rieser of the Interaction Lab. 

Professor Oliver Lemon said:

"This is a wonderful result for our team which demonstrates that Heriot-Watt University is among the top institutions in the world for research on conversational AI and Natural Language Processing. The challenge provided an amazing experience for our students to be able to learn about Amazon's Alexa services and to create and test their own social chatbot.”

Professor Verena Rieser, added:

"Through the Alexa Challenge, we have also had unique access to large amounts of real customer data and feedback which has helped the team to improve their system. Being part of this challenge has provided our students with invaluable insights and experience in the real-world deployment of a large-scale AI system to real people."

Student Team Leader Ioannis Papaioannou, said he was delighted to take part, adding:

“It is an amazing experience to take part in this coveted competition and we're all delighted to be have been selected to enter the final. It's been a privilege working with such a great team. I believe that determination, focus and a desire to push the scientific barriers, has helped us get to the finals.”

Competitors came from 14 other universities including Princeton, Harvard, Berkeley, Edinburgh, and Carnegie-Mellon.

When shortlisting, judges looked at the potential scientific contribution to the field, technical merit of the approach, novelty of the idea, and the team's ability to execute against their plan.

Thousands of Alexa customers conversed with the socialbots on popular topics and their feedback ratings were also used in shortlisting for the final.

The winners will be announced in November.

This summer the Edinburgh & South East Scotland City Region Deal confirmed that the UK's National Robotairum, a £35 million joint venture between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, will be the hub for robotics expertise. 

The funding for the new facility will substantially expand the current multi-disciplinary team of more than 100 researchers based in Edinburgh, driving forward the development of Robotics and Autonomous Systems technologies to benefit knowledge, companies and employment. 

This news article first appeared on the Heriot-Watt staff newsletter of 31st August 2017.