"This technology will be transformative in ways we can barely comprehend"

A judge and some of the finalists from the Alexa Prize Grand Challenge 3 talk about the competition, the role of COVID-19, and the future of socialbots.

Human beings are social creatures, and conversations are what connect us—they enable us to share everything from the prosaic to the profound with the people that matter to us. Living through an era marked by pandemic-induced isolation means many of those conversations have shifted online, but the connection they provide remains essential.

So what happens when you replace one of the human participants in a conversation with a socialbot? What does it mean to have an engaging conversation with an AI assistant? How can that kind of conversation prove to be valuable, and can it provide its own kind of connection?

Application period for next Alexa Prize challenge opens

The Amazon Alexa Prize team encourages all interested teams to apply for the Grand Challenge 4 by 11:59 p.m. PST on October 6, 2020.

The participants in this year’s Alexa Prize contest are driven by those questions. Amazon recently announced that a team from Emory University has won the 2020 Alexa Prize. We talked to that team, along with a judge from this year’s competition, as well as representatives from the other finalist teams at Czech Technical University, Stanford University, University of California, Davis, and University of California, Santa Cruz. We wanted to learn what drives them to participate, how COVID-19 has influenced their work and what they see as the possibilities and challenges for socialbots moving forward.

Alexa Prize Grand Challenge 3 winners share their work | Amazon Science

Q: What inspired you to participate in this year’s competition?

Sarah Fillwock, team leader, Emora, Emory University: We had a group of students who were interested in dialogue system research, some of whom had actually participated in the Alexa Prize in its previous years, and we all knew that the Alexa Prize offers a really unique opportunity for anyone interested in this type of work. It is really exciting to use the Alexa device platform to launch a socialbot, because we are able to get hundreds of conversations a day between our socialbot and human users, which really allows for quick turnaround time when assessing whether or not our hypotheses and strategies are improving the performance of our dialogue system.

Marilyn Walker, faculty advisor, Athena, University of California, Santa Cruz: In our Natural Language and Dialogue Systems lab, our main research focus is dialogue management and language generation. Conversational AI is a very challenging problem, and we felt like we could have a research impact in this area. The field has been developing extremely quickly recently, and the Alexa Prize offers an opportunity to try out cutting-edge technologies in dialogue management and language generation on a large Alexa user population.

Amazon Alexa Prize Finalists 2020
The five Alexa Prize finalist teams: Czech Technical University in Prague; Emory University; Stanford University; the University of California, Davis; and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Vrindavan (Davan) Harrison, team leader, Athena, UCSC: As academics, our primary focus is on research. This year’s competition aimed at being more research-oriented, allowing the teams to spend more time on developing new ideas.

Kai-Hui Liang, team lead, Gunrock, University of California, Davis: Our experience in last year’s competition motivated us to join again as we realized there is still a large room for improvement. I’m especially interested in how to find topics that engage users the most, including trying different ways to elicit and reason about users’ interests. How can we retrieve content that is relevant and interesting, and make the dialog flow more naturally?

Jan Pichl, team leader, Alquist, Czech Technical University: Since the first year of the Alexa Prize competition, we have been developing Alquist to deliver a wide range of topics with a closer focus on the most popular ones. The first Alquist guided a user through the conversation quite strictly. We learned quickly that we needed to introduce more flexibility and let the user be "in charge". With that in mind, we have been pushing Alquist in that direction. Moreover, we want Alquist to manage dialogue utilizing the knowledge graph, and suggest relevant information based on the previously discussed topics and entities.

Christopher D. Manning, faculty advisor, Chirpy Cardinal, Stanford University: It was our first time doing the Alexa Prize, and the team really hadn’t done advance preparation, so it’s all been a wild ride—by which I mean a lot of work and stress for everyone on the team. But it was super exciting that we were largely able to catch up with other leading teams who have been doing the competition for several years.

Hugh Howey, judge and science fiction author: Artificial intelligence is a passionate interest of mine. As a science fiction author, I have the freedom to write about most anything, but the one topic I keep coming back to is the impact that thinking machines already have on our lives and how that impact will only expand in the future. So any chance to be involved with those doing work and research in the field is a no-brainer for me. I leapt at the chance like a Boston Dynamics dog.

Q: What excites you about the potential of socialbots?

Hugh Howey (Judge): This technology will be transformative in ways we can barely comprehend. Right now, the human/computer interface is a bottleneck. It takes a long time for us to tell our computers what we want them to do, and they'll generally only do that thing the one time and forget what it learned. In the future, more and more of the trivial will be automated. This will free up human capital to tackle larger problems. It will also bring us together by removing language barriers, by helping those with disabilities, and eventually this technology will be available to anyone who needs it.

Jinho D. Choi, faculty advisor, Emory: It has been reported that more than 44 million adults in US have mental health issues such as anxiety or depression. We believe that developing an innovative socialbot that comforts people can really help those with mental health conditions, who are generally afraid of talking to other human beings. You may wonder how artificial intelligence can convey a human emotion such as caring. However, humans have used their own creations, such as arts and music, to comfort themselves. It is our vision to advance AI, the greatest invention of humankind, to help individuals learn more about their inner selves so they can feel more positive about themselves, and have a bigger impact in the world.

Ashwin Paranjape, co-team leader, Stanford: As socialbots become more sophisticated and prevalent, increasing numbers of people are chatting with them regularly. As the name suggests, socialbots have the potential to fulfill social needs, such as chit-chatting about everyday life, or providing support to a person struggling with mental health difficulties. Furthermore, socialbots could become a primary user interface through which we engage with the world—for example, chatting about the news, or discussing a book.

Sarah Fillwock, Emory: Our experience in this competition has really solidified this idea of the potential of socialbots being value to people who need support and are in troubling situations. I think that the most compelling role for socialbots in global challenges is to provide a supportive environment to allow people to express themselves, and explore their feelings with regard to whatever dramatic event is going on. This is especially important for vulnerable populations, such as those who do not have a strong social circle or have reduced social contact with others, prohibiting them from being able to achieve the feeling of being valued and understood.

Q: What are the main challenges to realizing that potential?

Abigail See, co-team leader, Stanford: Currently, socialbots struggle to make sense of long, involved conversations, and this limits their ability to talk about any topic in depth. To do this better, socialbots will need to understand what a particular user wants—not only in terms of discussion topics, but also what kind of conversation they want to have. Another important challenge is to allow users to take more initiative, and drive the conversation themselves. Currently, socialbots tend to take more initiative, to ensure the conversation stays within their capabilities. If we can make our socialbots more flexible, they will be much more useful and engaging to people.

Sarah Fillwock, Emory: One major challenge facing the field of dialogue system research is establishing a best practice for evaluation of the performance of dialogue approaches. There is currently a diverse set of evaluation strategies that the research community uses to determine how well their new dialogue approach performs. Another challenge is that dialogues are more than just a pattern-matching problem. Having a back-and-forth dialogue on any topic with another agent tends to involve planning towards achieving specific goals during the conversation as new information about your speaking partner is revealed. Dialogues also rely a lot on having a foundation of general world knowledge that you use to fully understand the implications of what the other person is saying.

Amazon releases Topical Chat dataset

The text-based collection of more than 235,000 utterances will help support high-quality, repeatable research in the field of dialogue systems.

Marilyn Walker, UCSC: There’s a shortage of large annotated conversational corpora for the task of open-domain conversation. For example, progress in NLU has been supported by large annotated corpora, such as Penn Treebank, however, there are currently no such publicly available corpora for open-domain conversation. Also, a rich model of individual users would enable much more natural conversations, but privacy issues currently make it difficult to build such models.

Hugh Howey (Judge): The challenge will be for our ethics and morality to keep up with our gizmos. We will be far more powerful in the future. I only hope we'll be more responsible as well.

Q: What role has the COVID-19 pandemic played in your work?

Jurik Juraska, team member, UCSC: The most immediate effect the onset of the pandemic had on our socialbot was, of course, that it could not just ignore this new dynamic situation. Our socialbot had to acknowledge this new development, as that was what most people were talking about at that point. We would thus have Athena bring up the topic at the beginning of the conversation, sympathizing with the users' current situation, but avoiding wallowing in the negative aspects of it. In the feedback that some users left, there were a number of expressions of gratitude for the ability to have a fun interaction with a socialbot at a time when direct social interaction with friends and family was greatly restricted.

Kai-Hui Liang, UC Davis: We noticed an evident difference in the way Alexa users reacted to popular topics. For example, before COVID-19, many users gave engaging responses when discussing their favorite sports to watch, their travel experiences, or events they plan to do over the weekend. After the breakout of COVID-19, more users replied saying there’s no sports game to watch or they are not able to travel. Therefore, we adapted our topics to better fit the situation. We added discussion about their life experience during the quarantine (eg. how their diet has changed or if they walk outside daily to stay healthy). We also observed more users having negative feelings potentially due to the quarantine. For instance, some users said they feel lonely and they miss their friends or family. Therefore, we enhanced our comforting module that expresses empathy through active listening.

Abigail See, Stanford: As the pandemic unfolded, we saw in real time how users changed their expectations of our socialbot. Not only did they want our bot to deliver up-to-date information, they also wanted it to show emotional understanding for the situation they were in.

Sarah Fillwock, Emory: When COVID became a significant societal issue, we tried two things: we had an experience-oriented COVID topic where our bot discussed with people how they felt about COVID in a sympathetic and reassuring atmosphere, and we had a fact-oriented COVID topic that gave objective information. What we observed was that people had a much stronger positive reaction to the experience-oriented COVID-19 approach than the fact-oriented COVID-19 approach, and seemed to prefer it when talking. This really gave us some empirical evidence that social agents have a strong potential to be helpful in times of turmoil by giving people a safe and caring space to talk about these major events in their life since people responded positively to our approach at doing this.

Q: Lastly, are there any particular advancements in the fields of NLU, dialogue management, conversational AI, etc., that you find promising?

Jan Pichl, Czech Technical University: It is exciting to see the capabilities of the Transformer-based models these days. They are able to generate large articles or even whole stories that are coherent. However, they demand a lot of computation power during the training phase and even during the runtime. Additionally, it is still challenging to use them in a socialbot when you need to work with constantly changing information about the world.

Abigail See, Stanford: As NLP researchers, we are amazed by the incredible pace of progress in the field. Since the last Alexa Prize in 2018, there have been game-changing advancements, particularly in the use of large pretrained language models to understand and generate language. The Alexa Prize offers a unique opportunity for us to apply these techniques, which so far have mostly been tested only on neat, well-defined tasks, and put them in front of real people, with all the messiness that entails! In particular, we were excited to explore the possibility of using neural generative models to chat with people. As recently as the 2018 Alexa Prize, these models generally performed poorly, and so were not used by any of the finalist teams. However, this year, these systems became an important backbone of our system.

Sarah Fillwock, Emory: The work people have been putting into incorporating common sense knowledge and common sense reasoning into dialogue systems is one of the most interesting directions of the current conversational AI field. A lot of the common sense knowledge we use is not explicitly detailed in any type of data set as people have learned them through physical experience or inference over time, so there isn’t necessarily any convenient way to currently accomplish this goal. There have been a lot of attempts to see how far a language modeling approach to dialogue agents can go, but even using huge dialogue data sets and highly complex models still results in hit-and-miss success at common sense information. I am really looking forward to the dialogue approaches and dialogue resources that more explicitly try to model this type of common sense knowledge.


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Are you a MS or PhD student interested in a 2021 Applied Science Internship in the fields of Speech, Robotics, Computer Vision, or Machine Learning/Deep Learning?Do you enjoy diving deep into hard technical problems and coming up with solutions that enable successful products that improve the lives of people in a meaningful way?If this describes you, come join our research teams at Amazon. As an Applied Science Intern, you will have access to large datasets with billions of images and video to build large-scale machine learning systems. Additionally, you will analyze and model terabytes of text, images, and other types of data to solve real-world problems and translate business and functional requirements into quick prototypes or proofs of concept.We are looking for smart scientists capable of using a variety of domain expertise combined with machine learning and statistical techniques to invent, design, evangelize, and implement state-of-the-art solutions for never-before-solved problems.Machine Learning Science:Amazon has multiple positions available for Machine Learning Scientists in Berlin, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Iasi and Tuebingen.A few of the teams that are hiring include:- Core AI- Amazon Search- AWS AI- Advertising Technologies- Community Shopping- Prime VideoSpeech and Language Technology:We are hiring in all areas of spoken language understanding: ASR, NLP, NLU, text-to-speech (TTS), and Dialog Management. Amazon has multiple positions available for Speech Scientists in Aachen, Barcelona, Berlin, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Gdansk, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Turin.A few of the teams that are hiring currently include:- Alexa ML- Alexa Brain- Alexa Shopping- Amazon Search- CS TechnologyComputer Vision:Amazon has multiple positions available for Computer Vision Scientists in locations such as Berlin, Barcelona, Tuebingen, Haifa and Tel Aviv.We are currently hiring for multiple teams including:· Visual Search· Amazon AI (AWS Rekognition)· Amazon Go· Lab126
DE, BW, Tuebingen
Are you interested in working on fascinating scientific and engineering challenges of modern information technology? Would you like to contribute to the development of the future generation of cloud computing at Amazon Web Services?As a Sr. Applied Scientist, you will be working on cutting edge projects in the intersection of causal inference, machine learning, and high-dimensional statistics. You will be part of an ambitious team of scientists and software engineers that is together developing novel software products for world-wide use.The AWS Causality Lab is located at the Tübingen site in Germany. Our goal is to enable our customers to improve confidence in their data science conclusions by making the underlying cause-effect relationships explicit. Going beyond mere correlational analysis, we quantify the causes of observations, and provide actionable insights based on data-driven what-if predictions.Our mission is to provide automated software for causal inference to our customers which builds on formalisms, algorithms, and statistical guarantees.As a Sr. Applied Scientist in the Causality Lab, you will be responsible for:· research and development of algorithms in causal inference· analyzing different data types, including time series, textual data sources and graphs· infering causal relationships between these inputs, and discriminating these from coincidental correlations· identifying the causes of particularities in data and quantify their specific contributions to downstream metrics· infering interventional and counterfactual analysis· collaborating product and development teams across AWS and Amazon as well as directly with customers· engaging in the interview process and otherwise developing, growing, and mentoring junior scientistsWe at AWS value individual expression, respect different opinions, and work together to create a culture where each of us is able to contribute fully. Our unique backgrounds and perspectives strengthen our ability to achieve Amazon's mission of being Earth's most customer-centric company.
US, NY, New York
Amazon Advertising operates at the intersection of eCommerce and advertising, offering a rich array of digital display advertising solutions with the goal of helping our customers find and discover anything they want to buy. We help advertisers reach Amazon customers on Amazon.com, across our other owned and operated sites, on other high quality sites across the web, and on millions of Kindles, tablets, and mobile devices. We start with the customer and work backwards in everything we do, including advertising. If you’re interested in joining a rapidly growing team working to build a unique, world-class advertising group with a relentless focus on the customer, you’ve come to the right place.In this role you will develop and evaluate machine learning models using large data-sets, cloud services and customer behavior insights to improve our customer’s experience. Working closely with best-in-class engineers you will have the opportunity to apply a variety of machine learning algorithms, including deep learning, and work on one of the world's largest data sets to influence the long term evolution of our technology roadmap.Impact and Career Growth:· Innovate and define the new pricing model for Sponsored Brand across many creative types.· · Addressing principles of allocation function and pricing in ad marketplace auctions;· · Developing efficient algorithms for multi-objective optimization and AI control methods to find operating points for the ad marketplace auctions and to evolve them· · Opportunity to grow and broaden your machine learning skills a make impact – the work you deliver directly impacts customers and revenue!· · Work in an environment that thrives on creativity, experimentation, and product innovation.· · Have the ability to experiment autonomously with meaningful projects.· · Mentor others Applied Scientists.Why you love this opportunity:Amazon is investing heavily in building a world class advertising business and we are responsible for defining and delivering a collection of self-service performance advertising products that drive discovery and sales. Our products are strategically important to our Retail and Marketplace businesses driving long term growth. We deliver billions of ad impressions and millions of clicks daily and are breaking fresh ground to create world-class products. We are highly motivated, collaborative and fun-loving with an entrepreneurial spirit and bias for action. With a broad mandate to experiment and innovate, we are growing at an unprecedented rate with a seemingly endless range of new opportunities.
US, NJ, Newark
Audible is searching for an exceptional data scientist to join our economics team and drive the development of models at the intersection of machine learning and econometrics at scale. The Audible economics organization works across the business to measure and maximize the value Audible delivers to customers, creators, and communities globally. In this role, there will be a focus on partnering with our content and strategy teams to build a groundbreaking catalog of audiobooks and spoken-word entertainment.We are looking for someone experienced in building ML models at scale for complex prediction and optimization problems, who also has a background (or burgeoning interest!) in causal inference or interpretable machine learning. In addition to working with our staff economists, you will also collaborate closely with scientists across Audible and partner teams at Amazon on problems pertinent to subscription businesses and the production of original media content.KEY RESPONSIBILITIES· Work with leadership in our content and strategy organizations to identify key analytical problems and opportunities – your work is expected to be a key input to our future content strategy.· Develop and maintain scalable, innovative data science and machine learning models that deliver actionable insights and results.· Collaborate with other data scientists, economists, and analysts at Audible to build data-driven solutions to key business problems.
US, NJ, Newark
Audible is looking for a talented teammate to join our economics team as senior manager of economic insights. The Audible Economics organization works across the business to measure and maximize the value Audible delivers to customers, creators, and communities globally. In this role, there is a focus on partnering with our economists and data scientists to craft analyses that solve crucial questions for external content stakeholders, including publishers, authors, and the broader creative community of spoken-word entertainment and audiobooks. In addition to helping shape analyses, you will be responsible for translating findings into key, actionable insights, and communicating them clearly to a range of audiences.We are searching for someone who has exceptional presentation, writing, and data visualization skills; a thorough knowledge of analytical methods used in economics, statistics, and data science; and an exemplary ability to tell simple, compelling stories with data. As Audible continues to redefine the ways people access, discover, and share stories, you will be at the forefront of discussions with our content team and creators on how to evolve the industry to discover new value for customers and storytellers alike.KEY RESPONSIBILITIES· Partner with content and strategy leadership to develop a roadmap of key analytical questions for creators.· Conceptualize and deliver analytical, data-driven solutions to those key questions, in original analyses and in partnership with staff economists and data scientists.· Produce data-driven recommendations to augment our content strategy and maximize value for customers and creators.· Develop innovative partnership structures and deal making strategies with existing and new creative partners.