Using AI for social impact

UB team participates in Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge

screen shot of Alexa Grand Challenge team.

Team Proto meets to discuss their socialbot’s performance in the beta testing phase of the Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge. Clockwise from left: Erin Pacquetet, Elizabeth Soper, Souvik Das, Sougata Saha and Rohini Srihari.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published February 24, 2021

While your grandma probably hasn’t ever heard the term “socialbot,” it’s possible that she’s used one – and, if not, that her life could be enhanced by one.

“I am thrilled by the fact that Alexa users all across the U.S. are currently interacting with a bot that we built. The whole idea of building a scalable AI system and serving a large user base is exciting. ”
Sougata Saha, Team Lead and PhD student
Department of Computer Science and Engineering

This – improving the quality and usability of socialbots, such as Amazon Echo’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri – is the mission of a University at Buffalo team taking part in the Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge.  

The cross-disciplinary UB team, including members of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is one of nine teams selected from universities around the world.  The team has undertaken the challenge of creating a socialbot “that can converse coherently and engagingly for 20 minutes with humans on a range of current events and popular topics such as entertainment, sports, politics, technology, and fashion.” While this is the fourth year of the challenge, this is the first time that a team from UB has entered.

The multi-million-dollar competition offers all participating university teams a $250,000 research grant, Alexa-enabled devices, free Amazon Web Services to support their development efforts and access to other tools, data and Alexa team support. 

“We’re thrilled to be competing against prestigious teams across the globe, including some of our role models at Stanford,” says Rohini Srihari, faculty advisor for the challenge, and a professor of computer science and engineering and an adjunct professor of linguistics.

“Drawing on a unique combination of skills, we hope our charismatic, empathetic and knowledgeable socialbot provides a memorable experience. With the dream of advancing research in conversational AI, Team Proto strives to live up to its name: the first.”

Under the direction of Srihari, Team Proto’s members are Sougata Saha and Souvik Das, both PhD students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Elizabeth Soper and Erin Pacquetet, both PhD students in the Department of Linguistics.

The students were inspired to participate in the competition after taking a seminar in conversational AI with Srihari in the spring of 2020, in which they looked at several papers from the previous year's Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge.

Team Proto submitted its application in August and was notified of its selection a few months later. The competition officially kicked off in November of 2020. 

The team is currently in the beta testing period, in which teams’ socialbots are being tried out by the public, until the end of February. Every day, over 7,000 people interact with Team Proto’s prototype and provide feedback. The team uses this feedback to constantly improve their socialbot’s abilities.

“We’re really getting to witness first-hand how human psychology and natural language are correlated,” says Das, Team Proto’s co-lead. “This competition shows how other factors – such as mood, political events, and time of day – can influence how people interact with the socialbot. The variety of possible interactions surprises me and at the same time makes this competition very interesting.”

“I am thrilled by the fact that Alexa users all across the U.S. are currently interacting with a bot that we built. The whole idea of building a scalable AI system and serving a large user base is exciting,” says Saha, the team’s other co-lead. 

Creating an end-to-end conversational system is similar to working with heavy machinery with lots of moving parts, and multiple points of failure, Srihari explains. The work is inherently interdisciplinary; the group has a shared foundation of courses in both computer science and linguistics. 

“Conversational AI falls at the intersection of natural language processing (NLP), deep learning, and information retrieval,” says Das, who in his graduate work explores research gaps in conversational AI. “Right now, I’m directly using the concepts I’ve learned in previous courses to make conversational systems more robust.”

The innovation of the team’s design lies in how they leverage deep learning and neural conversation generation techniques to generate multiple hypotheses for what the person will say next, and then experiment with an array of models to select the best fitting hypothesis as a response.

"Current research in AI and NLP is based on deep (neural) learning models,” says Srihari. “However due to the complexities of conversation that involves context, background knowledge, and personalities, there is a need to incorporate symbolic approaches as well for more effective conversations."

“As a linguist, it is fascinating to deconstruct what we think we know about discourse and conversations to be able to implement changes to our bot that will provide a more valuable experience to users,” says Pacquetet. “Socialbots do not produce language the same way people do, and it is forcing us to reinvent the way we think about discourse as a whole.

“Because of the challenge, I’ve learned a lot about how humans interact with technology, and how it differs from how we interact with other humans,” says Soper. “I’ve learned that a simple solution that can be implemented quickly is sometimes better than a sophisticated solution that takes a lot of effort to build.”

In late February, the UB team was one of five teams to qualify for the quarterfinals. After that, the field will be further narrowed, with three teams advancing to the semifinal round. The finals take place in July, with the winner being announced in August 2021.

The winning team will receive a prize of $500,000. The second- and third-place teams will receive prizes of $100,000 and $50,000, respectively. An additional $1 million research grant will be awarded to the winning team’s university if they have a composite score of 4.0 or higher (out of 5.0) and at least two-thirds of their socialbot’s conversations with interactors last for a duration of 20 minutes. 

“We would like to tell stories that illustrate the potential of AI for Social Impact,” says Srihari. “For example, we want to show how socialbots can help a grandparent, or someone who feels lonely or isolated. We ultimately hope that they can help people better understand what’s becoming an increasingly complex, and sometimes scary, world.”