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UW Team Wins $500,000 for Conversational Computer

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University of Washington
Team Sounding Board from the University of Washington has won Amazon's inaugural Alexa Prize. From left: Hao Fang, Hao Cheng, Ari Holtzman, Mari Ostendorf, Maarten Sap, Elizabeth Clark, Yejin Choi

A team from the University of Washington has won a major award for artificial intelligence: the inaugural Alexa Prize from Amazon.

The $500,000 award was announced today at Amazon’s AWS re:Invent 2017 conference in Las Vegas.

“It’s so exciting, we are very proud of our team and the whole University of Washington community,” said Hao Fang, leader of Sounding Board, a team composed of UW electrical engineering and computer science graduate students and faculty.

Team Sounding Board was one of three international finalists. Their task was to develop a “socialbot” capable of sustaining a coherent conversation about popular topics for 20 minutes.

Fang said the team didn’t want just a chatterbot, they wanted it to have meaningful conversations using trending topics on the web.

“And so in this way we can actively steer the conversation when the user doesn’t specify a topic,” he said.

The $500,000 prize will be split among the five team members: Fang, Hao Cheng, Elizabeth Clark, Ariel Holtzman, and Maarten Sap.

Fang said he doesn’t know how he will spend his share.

Deborah is an award–winning radio and television journalist whose career spans more than three decades. As the recipient of a 2018-2019 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship, Deborah is currently focusing her reporting on adolescents and mental health.