Research & Innovation

Stevens Team Wins Second Place in Amazon Alexa SocialBot Challenge

As part of the Alexa Prize SocialBot Grand Challenge 5 (SGC5), a team of Stevens Institute of Technology graduate students found success with a socialbot that aims to develop a most human concept: friendship.

NAM, or Never Alone with Me, was recently announced as the second place overall winner of the international university challenge competition, which focused on creating an Alexa skill that easily and clearly chats with users on trending topics and news for 20 minutes. The team won a $50,000 prize.

Launched in 2016, the Alexa Prize SocialBot Grand Challenge is a unique industry-academia partnership program that provides an agile real-world experimentation framework and tools for accelerating scientific discovery. University students can launch innovations online and rapidly adapt their novel technology based on feedback from Alexa customers.

Jia Xu, the team’s faculty advisor and an assistant professor, says seizing the opportunity to create a fascinating bot that millions of users would like to use in everyday life for chatting, gaining knowledge and entertainment was the primary reason for participating.

The inspiration for NAM came from the idea that a socialbot can behave like a friend, offering knowledge, helping with problems, caring and sharing personal experiences.

NAM placed second among a final round of five finalists based on, among other things, customer feedback and scientific merit of the technical papers produced by each team. The final evaluation was performed by judges interacting on a screen-equipped device in a closed session.

“There were two criteria for evaluation: rating and conversation duration. A team with a rating of at least 4.0 out of 5.0 and a conversation length of 20 minutes gets the final prize. Within the final evaluation period, our team had been ranked in the top three according to users' average ratings with our latest version of the bot reaching a 35-minute mean conversation length.”

Being able to successfully conduct very long conversations is part of what sets NAM apart from other bots.

“On average, our bot's conversation time doubles other bots' time. For some users, our bot reaches 56 minutes of chat duration, compared to about 10 to 20 minutes typically,” Xu says.

Another differentiator: NAM is a multi-modal bot, which responds with text and visual display components based on the real-time responses.

The product team in this final stage includes master’s students João Luís Lins Rodrigues Cruz, Sai Nikhil Reddy Maligireddy, Yeshwanth Reddy Peddamallu, Abhijeet Gusain, and Ph.D. student Md Kowsher. The team is also helped by Xu’s postdoc Abdul Rafae Khan and supported by all her Ph.D. students.

Xu is proud of the team’s accomplishment, particularly because this was Stevens’ first year participating in the competition.

“Most of our team members at the final stage were fresh students without prior natural language processing backgrounds, and they became chatbot experts through the competition,” she says. “We realized our unique socialbot based on imagination, innovation and technology, and we are proud of what we accomplished.”

Alexa customers can interact with the university socialbots, including NAM, by saying "Alexa, let’s discuss" on Amazon Echo, Fire TV or tablet devices, or by using the Alexa app on their phone or computer.