UW students create conversational Amazon Alexa device

SEATTLE -- Amazon has sold more than 10 million Echo devices with the voice assistant called Alexa. But how well does your Alexa know you?

Recently, Amazon held a contest to see if Alexa can have a conversation with you, other than the responses to typical commands. A team from the University of Washington showed us what Alexa can really say.

At first glance, you know right away it is not your typical Echo device.

When the team got the Echo device set up, it said, "Would you like to get to know each other?"

This could be the future of smart devices.

A team of UW graduate students from the Department of Electrical Engineering and the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering developed a conversational social-bot for Alexa called "Sounding Board."

They describe it as artificial intelligence capable of having a conversation with you.

"Our philosophy in developing Sounding Board was to bring a variety of relevant content into a natural conversation," said team leader Hao Fang. "Ultimately, we hope Sounding Board can become a conversational gateway to online information that users enjoy talking with."

Last November, Amazon awarded its first Alexa Prize, which called for teams to make the voice assistant more conversational. The contest called for teams to create an artificial intelligence agent capable  of holding a conversation for 20 minutes.  There were more than 100 teams from universities in 22 countries that participated. The team from UW won the grand prize of $500,000, which will be shared among the students.

"We want to understand what the user wants, what they want to talk about, or what their personality is, and also their reaction to some news or some interesting things," said Fang.

The team said Sounding Board is able to get its reactions and opinions from ones already online. It took about a year to complete the project.

"The students started from scratch, with no experience building a dialogue system or working with Alexa skills," said electrical engineering professor Mari Ostendorf.

There were plenty of challenges along the way, too.

"One of the main challenges was that a lot of people have different conversational styles and being able to talk to a broad range of different users," said professor Yejin Choi.

But overall, the team says it was fun and they were surprised by what sometimes seemed like a sense of humor in Alexa.

Amazon says they will publish the research done by all the teams as a way of sharing their work with the broader research community.