Alexa Taskbot

Amazon Starts New Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge

Amazon announced a new Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge on Thursday, the latest extension of the contests for voice app developers by the company. The TaskBot Challenge is focused on voice apps capable of completing complex tasks with multiple steps based on conversations with the user.

TaskBot Home Ec

Amazon Alexa and other voice assistants typically handle one command at a time. Alexa and its rivals can complete a series of orders from a single request when it is tied to a pre-arranged routine, but generally, it’s a one-to-one request to errand ratio. The idea of a TaskBot is to augment the conversation between a user and a voice assistant to carry out a broader order. For the Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge, Amazon is looking for examples around the two themes of home improvement and cooking. These domains, which are reminiscent of a home economics class’s curriculum, offer a lot of examples of deep complexities in simple commands like making a meal or building a small piece of furniture. Interested teams can start submitting their entries from March 17 until April 16. Up to ten participants will be announced by June 11, and each will get a $250,000 research grant and various Amazon tech services. After a year-long competition, the winners will be announced in June 2022. The first-place team will get $500,000, with $100,000 and $50,000 for second and third-place teams.

The TaskBot Challenge was born from Amazon’s interest in improving Alexa’s voice commerce and shopping abilities. Amazon envisions Alexa discussing what a customer should buy for specific goals, like a meal or a home improvement project, then helping them with using buying the materials and guiding them to finishing the project successfully. The challenge is slated to run for three years, with new domains joining the two initial themes over time. The new challenge also requires a multi-modal component, meaning visuals like blueprints or pictures of what the described meal should look like that enhance the voice app’s audio facet.

“This new Alexa Prize challenge represents a major step towards Alexa becoming the best digital assistant, by interactively assisting customers to complete everyday tasks, be it in cooking or home improvement,” Alexa Shopping vice president of research and science Yoelle Maarek explained in the announcement. “This is a hard AI challenge and we need to rally the best scientific minds if we want to be successful. I am delighted to see that our scientists and scholars at Amazon are turning once more to the academic community to jointly address it. This is a wonderful example of our customer-obsessed science approach where we push the boundaries of science to help and delight our customers together with academia.”

Challenging Alexa

The new competition represents a combination of current and previous Alexa Prize contests, including the fourth Socialbot contest currently ongoing. Emory University won the third edition of the competition, earning $500,000 for its Emora socialbot. Emory followed the University of California, Davis, and its Gunrock socialbot and the University of Washington’s Sounding Board program to the top spot. And the socialbot challenge is only one of several Alexa contests. The Art Museum Alexa Skill won $20,000 in the Alexa Skills Challenge: Alexa Conversations contest in January. Last month, Amazon completed the Brazil-exclusive first Alexa Accessibility Award, with Memória Sonora (Memory Sound), an audio card-matching game designed for people in cognitive rehabilitation, taking the top spot. The new contest’s multi-modal component was the focus of a whole contest as well, with celebrity voice guessing game Voice Blast coming in first earlier this year. The new TaskBot Challenge could open up a whole new arena for improving Alexa skills, however, with major potential improvements in Alexa’s voice commerce features.

“Customers worldwide interact with Alexa billions of times each week. Those interactions are goal-directed, such as ‘Alexa, what’s the weather forecast for tomorrow?’ or ‘Alexa, did the Lakers win last night?’ But increasingly customers want to go beyond these exchanges, to more complex, multimodal, multi-step tasks,” Alexa AI vice president Prem Natarajan said. “Just as the existing Alexa Prize Grand Challenge is focused on advancing digital assistants’ ability to conduct multi-turn, open domain conversations, this new challenge will focus on what’s required of digital assistants to competently complete multi-step tasks for customers.”


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