‘Alexa, who won the $500,000 artificial intelligence prize?’ UC Davis team’s chatbot is champ

A talkative bot that can hold up its end of a conversation for nearly 10 minutes claimed a half-million-dollar prize Tuesday for the UC Davis student team that invented it.

The team of 11 graduate and undergraduate students won the $500,000 global with their “chatbot,” which speaks with humans on topics that they both find to be engaging.

UC Davis was one of eight universities to receive $250,000 in funding upon entering the contest. Three teams became finalists, and the Amazon Alexa prize was announced Tuesday at the annual Amazon Web Service re:Invent conference in Las Vegas.

The chatbot, named Gunrock after the UC Davis mascot, was able to hold a conversation for 9 minutes and 59 seconds during the competition’s final round. The chatbot uses data from millions of Amazon Alexa users, and is available to the public on Alexa-enabled devices. More than 1,000 users engage with the bot each day.

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“We went in feeling like the underdog,” graduate student and team lead Arbit Chen said, “But we made changes to the bot based on feedback from our users. We realized what we do wrong and what we do right. We were really the wild-card team.”

Gunrock was particularly successful due to its signature of cognitive process. The bot gives the impression that it takes time to think and be human-like when it use pauses such as “hm” and “ah.”

“We did a great job in natural language understanding and adaptations,” said Zhou Yu, computer science assistant professor. “We created common feelings and allow the bot to find common ground with the users.”

The bot engages in topics that users are really passionate about, and digs deeper into conversation – anything from users’ pet names to sports and politics.

Second place was awarded to Alquist from the Czech Technical University in Prague, and third place went to Alana from the Heroit-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland

UC Davis’ prize money will be divided by the team members. They plan to compete in next year’s competition, Yu said.

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