Ran Zhao, a Ph.D. student in the Language Technologies Institute (LTI), has been named Carnegie Mellon University's first Alexa Fund fellow, and CMU is one of the first four universities to be chosen to be part of the Alexa Fund Fellowship.
The Alexa Fund Fellowship is a new program from Amazon that supports universities and researchers focused on transformative voice technologies such as text-to-speech, natural language understanding, automatic speech recognition and conversational artificial intelligence. Amazon named the fellowship program for Alexa, its voice service that powers devices such as Amazon Echo.
Zhao, who hopes to complete his Ph.D. in language and information technology next year, earned a bachelor's degree in computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a master's degree at Yale University.
As part of the fellowship program, Amazon is providing Alexa-enabled devices for use this spring in an LTI project course, Dialogue Systems, taught by Research Professor Emeritus Alex Rudnicky and Language Technologies Professor Alan Black, with assistance from Zhao.
Rudnicky said the course will task students with creating new voice applications, or skills, for Alexa. Eighteen students are enrolled — larger than the typical number for this project course.
"It's a moment in time when voice interaction is a matter of increased interest," Rudnicky said, including students. With a number of voice-enabled systems now on the market, researchers are interested in pushing the technology as far as possible, while companies look for both new applications and new graduates who are accustomed to developing dialogue systems, he and Black agreed.
In addition to CMU, initial universities participating in the program include Johns Hopkins University, the University of Southern California and the University of Waterloo .
Rudnicky and Black also each lead an Amazon-sponsored student team that will compete in the inaugural $2.5 million Alexa Prize. The competition challenges each team to build a socialbot that can converse coherently and engagingly with humans on a variety of popular topics for 20 minutes. Rudnicky's Ruby Star team, Black's CMU Magnus team and 10 other teams were selected by Amazon to receive a $100,000 research grant and other support for their entries. The judging process begins in April and will include input from Alexa users.