The Edinburgh-based university, which this year was recognised as the Sunday Times ‘International University of the Year’, beat out some impressive competition from around the globe to make the final of the inaugural competition.

The Alexa Prize has quickly become a highly sought after award and is dedicated to recognising students who are accelerating the field of conversational artificial intelligence. This new annual award will ultimately help advance several areas of conversational AI’s, including natural language understanding. In doing so, it will help open up the devices to a wider section of society.

Heriot-Watt University was born out of the Scottish Enlightenment and has been an internationally renowned university for hundreds of years. Founded in 1821, Heriot-Watt is consistently regarded as one of the UK’s leading universities. The university was actually founded as the first Mechanics Institute in the world, which revolutionised access to education in science and technology. It’s particularly appropriate then, that the university achieved this most recent success, which speaks to the continued pedigree of its students.

The nine-strong team behind this year’s success story, named What’s up Bot, flew to Las Vegas for the final of the competition. Their entry, highly sophisticated software which they named Alana, is able to understand and respond to human conversation. The Heriot-Watt team was the only UK university to make the final three and fended off more than 100 entries from 22 different countries, including the likes of Harvard and Princeton.

Richard A. Williams, Heriot-Watt’s Principal and Vice-Chancellor said:

“The Amazon Alexa Prize has provided us with a global platform to showcase the extraordinary talent we have at this university.Throughout 2017, Heriot-Watt has been celebrating the Year of Robotics and this latest success - being the only UK university to reach the final of this major global competition - cements our place as a world leader in artificial intelligence and robotics”.

In an impressive display of commitment, some of the team of PhD students actually put their studies on hold to take part. The group ultimately finished third in the final round, behind fellow finalists from the Czech Technical University and the winners from the University of Washington. However, they can take great pride from the fact that the final decision was incredibly close, with Heriot-Watt’s team gaining the highest average rating of all teams during the last day of public testing.

This year’s competition focused on the challenge of building a ‘socialbot’. The aim was to create an AI that could accurately and engagingly converse with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes. Thousands of Amazon’s own customers then put the entrants’ software through their paces, conversing with the finalists’ socialbots. They then gave their feedback to competition judges on whether the technology was up to the task.

The artificial intelligence and robotics industry has been identified in Scotland as a key growth area. It’s great to see that Heriot-Watt’s research is contributing towards the drive to realise its potential in this rapidly evolving sector. As technology continues to become more and more involved in all our lives, Scotland is ensuring that they are leading the charge.

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