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2 Carnegie Mellon teams chosen to compete in Amazon’s socialbot competition |

2 Carnegie Mellon teams chosen to compete in Amazon’s socialbot competition

Aaron Aupperlee
| Tuesday, November 15, 2016 12:09 p.m
FILE - This Wednesday, March 2, 2016, file photo shows an Echo Dot, left, and an Amazon Tap in San Francisco. The Amazon Echo, which listens to you, answers questions and carries out tasks like calling an Uber or turning on your lights, is finding a place in millions of living rooms. The Dot and the portable Tap give the Echo's Alexa software even broader reach. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

It will turn your home’s lights on and off, tell you the weather and who won the Steelers game — even if you’re not going to like the answer — and order laundry detergent for you if you run out.

But Amazon wants its digital personal assistant, Alexa, to do more and has enlisted the help of two teams from Carnegie Mellon University.

The CMU teams and 10 others from around the world were tapped to compete in the first Amazon Alexa challenge to design a computer program that will allow the device to have a conversation with people.

“The ultimate goal is to create something that you can stand up at a party and have people talk to it without excusing themselves to get another drink,” said Alex Rudnicky, a research professor at CMU’s Language Technologies Institute and the university’s School of Computer Science. “It’s a really tough problem, and there aren’t any clear ways of solving it, so really one way to try to do it is to throw the problem at a bunch of smart students at universities and see what they can come up with.”

Rudnicky will lead one of the teams and Alan Black, also a professor at the Language Technologies Institute and the School of Computer Science, will lead the other. Almost 20 students will be involved in the two teams.

Industries turning to universities to solve problems isn’t new.

A CMU team is a semi-finalist in Elon Musk’s SpaceX Hyperloop competition.

University of Pittsburgh recently partnered with ANSYS, a Cecil-based engineering simulation software company, to give students access to real-world tools and problems in additive manufacturing.

The competitions give companies a fresh set of eyes on a problem, and universities get new problems to solve.

“The believable chat agent problem is not well understood enough that you can just hire a bunch of smart people, and they can build you something,” Rudnicky said. “There’s no real clear way to solve that problem.”

The teams will have to design a socialbot, a computer program that can simulate human behavior, that can converse “coherently and engagingly” for about 20 minutes with someone about popular topics and news, according to an announcement from Amazon about the competition. More than 100 teams from 22 countries applied to compete.

“We are eager to see what students from the 12 sponsored teams around the world — including one team of undergrads — create with Alexa,” said Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist of Amazon’s Alexa program.

The winning team will receive $500,000, and its school will receive $1 million. Teams also get a $100,000 prize for participating and access to Alexa devices and other Amazon support.

Several large tech firms are tackling the realm of digital personal assistants. Apple has Siri. There’s Cortana from Microsoft. Google just launched Google Now on its new Pixel phone. Rudnicky said each can respond when asked basic questions but can’t carry on an engaging and satisfying conversation.

Rudnicky said he owns an Alexa device, but it’s turned off most of the time. The device often confuses his name, Alex, with its name, Alexa, chiming in when no one asked it to.

“That’s a really interesting problem to solve,” Rudnicky said.

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7986 or

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Aaron at 412-320-7986, or via Twitter .

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