Carnegie Mellon Selected for Two Amazon Alexa Fellowships

CMU is one of 18 universities selected for the expanded Amazon Alexa Fellowship program, and one of two schools in that group to receive both an Alexa Graduate Fellowship and an Alexa Innovation Fellowship.

Carnegie Mellon University is one of 18 universities selected from around the world for an expanded Amazon Alexa Fellowship program, and one of just two universities in that group to receive both an Alexa Graduate Fellowship and a newly created Alexa Innovation Fellowship.

CMU was one of four universities chosen last year by Amazon when it launched the fellowship program, which supports universities and researchers specializing in conversational AI. It is named for Alexa, the voice service that powers Amazon devices such as Echo.

The fellowships during that initial year were awarded to graduate students, including Ran Zhao, a Ph.D. student in CMU's Language Technologies Institute. Ten universities will have Alexa graduate fellows in the expanded program.

New this year is the Innovation Fellowship. Rather than presenting fellowships to graduate students, this award goes to faculty members at 10 universities who will serve as expert resources to help students start companies that integrate voice with their technology.

"While graduate students are uniquely positioned to accelerate conversational AI research and education, we've observed students with diverse backgrounds inventing new products and services that can benefit from adding voice interfaces," Amazon said in announcing the expanded fellowship program.

CMU's Alexa Innovation Fellow is Kit Needham, director of Project Olympus, a startup incubator program that is part of CMU's Swartz Center for Entrepreneurship. She is an advisory board member of Chatham University's Center for Women's Entrepreneurship and adjunct faculty in their MBA program. She was chief operating officer of Mellon Lab, which was responsible for creating revenue-producing businesses for Mellon Bank. She also provides consulting services to promote economic growth to chambers of commerce, individual entrepreneurs, and nonprofit organizations.

Needham will travel to Amazon headquarters in Seattle for two days of training. She will receive funding and Alexa devices and hardware that can be used to help startups add voice interfaces to their technologies.

Zhao will continue as CMU's Alexa graduate fellow in the second year of the program. The fellowship covers tuition, provides a stipend and pairs Zhao with an Alexa scientist. The fellowship also provides Alexa devices and developer kits for use in an LTI project course, Dialogue Systems. Alex Rudnicky, research professor emeritus, and Alan Black, professor of language technologies, teach the course with assistance from Zhao.

Zhao's Ph.D. thesis focuses on extending task-oriented dialogue systems with social capabilities to better reflect the characteristics of human-human interaction. He is an author on 11 papers and received the Best Student Paper award at the 16th International Conference on Intelligent Virtual Agents.

Learn more about the fellowship on the program's website.

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