Heriot-Watt claims podium place in Amazon artificial intelligence competition

A Scottish university reached the final three of a prestigious international competition dedicated to advancing conversational artificial intelligence (AI).

A team of Phd students from Heriot-Watt saw more than 100 entries from 22 countries including the likes of Harvard and Princeton to become the only UK institution to be placed in the Alexa Prize.

A nine-strong team, named What’s Up Bot, won plaudists from judges for their artificial intelligence software named Alana, which can understand and respond to human conversation.

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The annual competition is organised by online retail giant Amazon and is named after the Alexa voice command system that powers Amazon Echo.

The team of PhD students from Heriot-Watt’s school of mathematical and computer sciences finished behind fellow finalists, the Czech Technical University and eventual winners, the University of Washington, at a ceremony held in Las Vegas on Tuesday, 28 November.

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Professor Oliver Lemon, team co-leader, said: “It’s disappointing to miss out on this award but I’m immensely proud of everyone for reaching the final three of this hugely competitive international competition.

“Heriot-Watt is known as a world-leader in artificial intelligence and robotics, and we have helped cement this growing reputation by competing against some of the most celebrated universities in the world. As co-leader of the team, it has been an honour to work with such a talented group of students who I believe will now go on to have an even greater impact in the field of artificial intelligence.”

This year’s competition focused on the challenge of building a ‘socialbot’ that could converse coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes.

Since April 2017, thousands of Alexa customers have been putting the software through the ultimate test by conversing with all of the finalists’ socialbots on a host of popular topics. They then gave their feedback based on whether the conversation flowed naturally and if the technology was up to the task.

On the final day of public testing, Heriot-Watt’s Alana system gained the highest average rating of all the teams, based on hundreds of conversations with Amazon Alexa users.

Professor Verena Rieser, co-lead of What’s Up Bot team, added: “We were the only UK University represented in the final of the Amazon Alexa Prize, which in itself is a tremendous achievement.

“I’m extremely proud of the students who have invested a great deal of time and effort. All have made significant sacrifices, with some even putting their studies on hold in order to take part. Hopefully, through our involvement in this competition, we will inspire the next generation of computer scientists.”