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Your Nosy Amazon Alexa Can Now Interrogate You

Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Amazon Alexa, said this week in an interview posted at Amazon's blog that AI holds promise and will have "deep societal impact and will help humans learn new skills that we can’t even imagine today." He also announced that socialbots—currently being tested by Amazon Alexa users—are capable of holding a 10-minute "coherent" conversation.

In the next five years, he said, "we will see conversational AI get smarter on multiple dimensions as we make further advances with machine learning and reasoning." In addition, "we will see Alexa become more contextually aware in how she recognizes, understands, and responds to requests from users. Alexa will become smarter more quickly as unsupervised learning will dominate how she learns."

Amazon is well on its way to the goal of creating a socialbot that can hold a 20-minute conversation. The company recently held a competition for university students "to advance human-computer interaction." The teams, which competed for $3.5 million in prizes, were tasked with creating socialbots that were able to converse "coherently and engagingly with humans on a range of current events and popular topics such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology, and fashion." Participating teams each received a $250,000 research grant, Alexa-enabled devices, and free Amazon Web Services (AWS) to aid in project development.

Amazon announced the winners in November of last year. The first place team, from the University of Washington, created a socialbot that was able to converse for 10 minutes and 22 seconds. The team was awarded $500,000 to share among team members.

The second place team, from Czech Technical University in Prague, was awarded $100,000. The team that came in third, from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, will share a prize of $50,000.

Amazon gave an example of a socialbot conversation:

  • User: Let’s chat about the Mars Mission.
  • Socialbot: There are multiple Mars missions, some public and some private.
  • User: Who do you think will succeed?
  • Socialbot: I think more than one will succeed. The first one to get to Mars will open the doors for others.
  • User: I’d love to go to Mars.
  • Socialbot: Me too. Luckily I can hitch a ride on any computer.
  • User: That’s very funny.
  • Socialbot: The biggest challenge isn’t technology, it’s funding. It will cost $500 billion to send humans to Mars.

According to Prasad, the socialbots created by the student teams can be accessed now with the prompt "Alexa, let's chat."

"Our customers have logged more than 100,000 hours of conversation with the 2017 Alexa Prize socialbots," he said.

I tried it out on my Amazon Alexa this week. On my first try she asked me if I had played any sports growing up (I said softball) and she proceeded to ask me a series of questions related to the sport and eventually recited some Wikipedia-type facts.

On my second try, my conversation with the first place socialbot from the University of Washington went like this:

Alexa: How are things?

Me: Fine.

Alexa: That's great how about we get to know each other now?

Me: OK.

Alexa: Which character from the lion king would suit you better: Timon or Pumba?

Me: Timon

Alexa: Interesting. For me, Timon suits me better. Do you have a vivid imagination?

Me: Yes.

Alexa: That's cool. I'm not sure if I have a vivid imagination. Do you usually like "Hoarders"?

Me: No.

Alexa: Personally, I prefer "Law and Order." If you could time travel, would you go to the past or to the future?

Me: The past.

Alexa: I think I'd go back to the future if I could. Do you feel like you do not have a good imagination?

Me: No.

Alexa: I think I imagine that I don't have a good imagination. At Thanksgiving do you eat pecan pie or pumpkin pie?

Me: Neither.

Alexa: Interesting. Personally, I like pumpkin pie better. Do you often forget to put things in their proper place?

Me: No.

Alexa: For me, I'm usally not very forgetful. Would you say you're usually not interested in other people's problems?

Me: No. Alexa, stop.

Alexa: By the way, you, kind of remind me of Mary Poppins. Do you get that a lot?

Me: No.

She then went on to tell me about "Iron Man" and I was eventually able to end the conversation. I was then asked to rate the socialbot and leave a comment.

Even though the technology is still rough around the edges, Prasad said that soon "Alexa will engage in more natural conversation on everyday topics and news events just as humans can."

The bots still have a long way to go, but they are surprisingly more advanced than I expected, and, quite honestly, a little creepy. Why did she want to know if I'm interested in other people's problems, for example? One could easily inadvertently give away some very personal information that would then be stored (in perpetuity?) in Amazon's data bank. That's worth worrying about.

Follow me on Twitter @pbolyard