Amazon Wants To Make Alexa More Conversational

Amazon announced the teams they have selected to compete for the Amazon Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge 3. This challenge chooses ten teams from universities around the world to help Alexa become more conversational, according to Amazon’s Senior Principal Scientist Dilek Hakkani-Tur. The goal is to have Alexa engage with humans in 20 minute conversations, incorporating conversational artificial intelligence areas such as:

  • Knowledge acquisition: Gaining knowledge from external sources, i.e humans.
  • Natural language understanding: Being able to understand language other than commands, like sentence fragments and run-on sentences.
  • Natural language generation: Turning data into plain language, like taking data about a product and turning it into a product description.
  • Context modeling: Adapting the information based on who Alexa is speaking to, i.e an old person vs. a young child.
  • Commonsense reasoning: Giving Alexa everyday knowledge about regular situations.
  • Dialogue planning: Being able to deal with incomplete information and sense what is the right action to take, like seeing a phone number and knowing to make a phone call.
Amazon Alexa

With applications from universities in over 15 countries, Amazon’s Selection Committee picked ten teams, five of them returning including Carnegie Mellon University, Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology, and the 2018 winner University of California, Davis. The universities were judged on a number of criteria including their scientific contributions, technical skills, and novelty. Now that the contestants have been chosen, Amazon will provide them with the resources necessary for the research and development of a more conversational Alexa.

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Alexa’s Medical Uses

Amazon Alexa has dozens of different uses in many industries, including wellness and medicine. Cedars-Sinai Hospital is currently piloting a program that puts Alexa into 100 patient rooms, having the voice assistant completely simple tasks like changing the channel or calling a nurse. Currently, patients can ask Alexa for information about casual topics like the weather or music, but presumably the patients could also benefit from a more social Alexa.

In the same vein, Pennsylvania State University researchers are looking into the ways that Alexa can help reduce pain as an alternative to opioids. Using Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, patients can speak with a virtual coach from their homes, leading to longer-term engagement. It’s easy to see how a more conversational Alexa would benefit users in many areas, particularly medicine and health.

Aliza Vigderman

Aliza Vigderman

Aliza is a journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. Throughout her career, her work has spanned many intersections within the tech industry. At SquareFoot, a New York-based real estate technology company, she wrote about the ways in which technology has changed the real estate industry, as well as the challenges that business owners face when they want to invest in property. At, an education technology website, Aliza created digital content for lifelong learners, exploring the ways in which technology has democratized education. Additionally, she has written articles for The Huffington Post as well as her own content on Medium, the online publishing platform. Aliza’s love of journalism and research stems from the excellent Journalism program at Brandeis University. At Brandeis, Aliza interned as a research assistant at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, a non-profit “news room without walls”. There, Aliza was paired with an investigative journalist and used academic databases to obtain data on everything from the suicide rates in Bhutan to local Boston court cases. Her last position was as an account executive at Yelp, educating business owners on the power of technology to increase revenue. Throughout, however, her heart remained with tech journalism, and she’s thrilled to be writing for Security Baron. When she’s not keeping afloat of the latest tech trends, Aliza likes to cook, read, and write. A former high school “Class Clown,” Aliza has completed two feature-length screenplays, a pilot, and countless comedic sketches. On her days off you can find her relaxing in Prospect Park, trying the latest flavors at Ample Hills Ice Cream, and spending time with friends and family.

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