In fall of 2020, an interdisciplinary team from UB embarked on what would become a nearly yearlong, life-changing journey.
Under the direction of computer science and engineering professor Rohini Srihari, Team Proto, made up of four PhD students, entered the Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge 4, sponsored by Amazon.
Their task was to create a socialbot — think Alexa or Siri — that could converse coherently and engagingly with users for 20 minutes on a range of topics, from politics to fashion to technology. Team Proto was one of nine teams from around the world competing not only for a substantial grand prize, but to use AI to make a real impact.
After months of building its design, the team’s bot went live in January 2021. Every day, it interacted with more than 7,000 people, who conversed with it at length and provided valuable feedback after the experience. The team worked to constantly improve their bot and, in the summer, advanced to the final round of the competition. Team Proto, comprised of Sougata Saha and Souvik Das, PhD students in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Elizabeth Soper and Erin Pacquetet, PhD students in the Department of Linguistics, ultimately won bronze, which includes a $50,000 prize.
“I am especially proud of Team Proto and the incredible effort they put into this competition. Our performance is particularly impressive because we were the smallest team and were participating for the first time,” says Srihari.
The hands-on competition gave students the opportunity to learn about the current state of research on AI and socialbots, or chatbots, as well as the field’s far-reaching potential. “If we can figure out how to develop socialbots that can conduct purposeful, personalized, empathetic conversations with users, it opens up so many applications, ranging from personal health coaching to combating disinformation,” says Srihari.
Team Proto members particularly valued the experience of getting to interact with and learn from Alexa users across the country, which genuinely challenged their perspectives and training.
“It was eye-opening to realize that the way we think about conversations as researchers and linguists is different from the real-world data we obtained every day,” notes Pacquetet.
Another highlight for the students was working on such a big project as a small team. “This experience of working on a team was different than any I’d had before,” says Das. “We operated like a group of friends working toward building a start-up.”
Srihari plans to enter the competition with another team, including some of the same students, again. And this time, the team will come in with a base of experience. In the meantime, Alexa customers can continue to engage with the winning teams’ socialbots simply by saying, “Alexa, let’s chat.”
“I love the feeling that at any given point, someone somewhere in the United States is interacting with an AI that we created, and witnessing an experience that we designed,” Saha says.