A team of students from the Czech Technical University in Prague have placed second in the prestigious Alexa Prize contest, organised by the US giant Amazon. The aim of the competition is to develop artificial intelligence for Amazon Alexa, capable of chatting with people on popular topics such as movies, sports or music. Along with the prize, the Czech team also picked up a financial award of 100,000 US dollars.
Heading into their second year as finalists of the Alexa Prize competition, the Czech team set out to develop a chatbot capable of conducting fun, fluent and natural conversation with people on all sorts of topics, working with Amazon Echo, a brand of smart speakers developed by the company.
The Czech team, led by long-time AI industry expert Jan Šedivý, spent close to 12 months developing Alquist and just like last year, it was the only team from a non-English-speaking country to make it to the final round.
I asked Jan Pichl, an Artificial Intelligence PhD student at the Czech Technical University, who recently ranked in Czech’s Forbes 30 Under 30, to tell me more about Alquist.
“Alquist is a chat-bot, which is a piece of software capable of having conversations with real humans, and we developed it for the competition.
“The task of the competition was to develop coherent and engaging conversation, which basically has only one goal, and that is to entertain people.”
Does it have any practical use? How can it be applied in normal life?
“Alquist as it is can be applied for conversations about popular topics and users can learn some new information from it, because it can gather information from all over the internet.
“But it can easily be transformed to perform a particular task, such as take restaurant reservations and stuff like that. But as it is now, its main task is to entertain people with funny facts and so on.”
Why did you choose the name Alquist?
“Alquist is the main character in R.U.R, a 1920 play written by Czech writer Karel Čapek. Alquist is actually a human, a robot builder, and the only survivor. So we thought it would be a good name for our chatbot.”
How have you improved Alquist since last year’s competition?
“We actually completely rewrote it. There were many situations where Alquist could be repetitive. Now it is more adaptable and people enjoy it more than they did last year.”
How important is it for you, winning second place in the Alexa competition? Can it help you in your future career?
“Yes. It is a great success for us and we are really happy for this opportunity. Obviously it can attract a lot of partners who want to cooperate with us on further projects.”