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Buckeyes chosen to vie for Amazon Alexa Prize again


Less than a year removed from earning accolades in Amazon’s inaugural Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge, a team of engineering students from The Ohio State University has been selected to participate in the Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge 2.

Alexa Prize is a flagship industry-academic collaboration dedicated to accelerating the science of conversational artificial intelligence (AI) and multimodal human-AI interactions. The program was launched in 2016 to recognize students from around the globe who are changing the way we interact with technology. The TaskBot Challenge is focused on developing multimodal – voice and vision – conversational agents that assist customers in completing tasks requiring multiple steps and decisions.

Alexa Prize team in the Numbers Garden

Team members (l to r) Tianhao Zang, Huanli Gong, Tianshu Zhang, Prof. Huan Sun, Lingbo Mo and Sunit Singh (not in photo, Chang-Yu Tai)

Advised by Computer Science and Engineering Associate Professor Huan Sun, a team of Buckeye engineers earned third place and $50,000 in prize funding in last year’s challenge, the best performance among competitors from North America. This year’s team consists of two undergraduates (Tianhao Zang and Huanli Gong), two masters students (Sunit Singh and Chang-Yu Tai) and two PhD students (Lingbo Mo and Tianshu Zhang).

“Through this challenge, we hope our work can expand the horizon of conversational AI along dimensions like dialogue depth, multimodal coordination, common sense reasoning and learning from use,” said Sun.

In addition to last year’s first and second place winners – The University of Glasgow and Portugal’s NOVA School of Science and Technology – Ohio State’s students will compete against teams from Penn State University, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Purdue University, Rutgers University, University of California Santa Cruz, University of Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech.

“I am delighted to see that new teams are joining the second year of the competition together with returning teams, who, by competing again, are signaling to us that they found value in the TaskBot challenge,” said Yoelle Maarek, vice president research and science for Amazon Shopping. “We expect these talented graduate students to continue surprising us, as well as Amazon customers, this year.”

TaskBot Challenge 2 teams are working to address one of the hardest problems in conversational AI – creating next-generation conversational AI experiences that delight customers by addressing their changing needs as they complete complex tasks. This challenge builds upon the Alexa Prize’s foundation of providing universities a unique opportunity to test cutting-edge machine learning models with actual customers at scale.

“We are especially interested in developing innovative ways to achieve successful coordination of multiple modalities,” said Ohio State computer science and engineering PhD student Lingbo Mo, “such as visual and verbal elements, and creating a more engaging and intuitive user experience.”

This year’s challenge has been expanded to include more hobbies and at-home activities. Participating teams were asked to propose innovative ways to incorporate visual aids into every conversation turn when a screen is available.

Each team receives a $250,000 research grant, Alexa-enabled devices, free Amazon Web Services cloud computing services to support their research and development efforts, access to Amazon scientists, the CoBot (conversational bot) toolkit and other resources. The prizes for overall performance in the competition will be $500,000 for the first-place team, $100,000 for second, and $50,000 for third.

The university teams’ taskbots will be available for Alexa customers to engage with in May 2023 with a finals event being held in September, and winners announced later that month.

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