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Amazon Alexa Prize offers $2.5M to get voice assistant chatting

The company wants to make Alexa smart enough to talk with a real person for 20 minutes, and it hopes clever students can help.

Tyler Lizenby/CNET

Amazon is hoping some universities start getting chatty with Alexa.

The online retailer announced on Thursday the Alexa Prize, a $2.5 million award for college students who develop technology to make it more natural to talk with Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant. The company said the goal of the competition is to build a "socialbot" on Alexa that will converse with people about popular topics and news events.

The university team with the best performing socialbot will win a $500,000 prize. Amazon also will give $1 million to the winning team's university if its socialbot is able to talk "coherently and engagingly" with humans for 20 minutes. Up to 10 teams will be sponsored by Amazon and will receive a $100,000 stipend, Alexa-enabled devices, free Amazon Web Services access and support from the Alexa team.

Millions of regular Alexa customers will be part of the research and judging process, with Amazon giving them the ability to talk with the socialbots on popular topics by saying "Alexa, let's chat about (a topic -- for example, baseball playoffs, celebrity gossip, scientific breakthroughs, and so on)." Alexa users will then give feedback on the experience to help the students improve their social bots, as well as pick the winner.

"A socialbot that can converse coherently for 20 minutes is unprecedented and at least five times more advanced than state-of-the-art conversational AI," Rohit Prasad, head scientist of Amazon Alexa, said in a statement. "This challenge and the immediate feedback students will receive on their best ideas from millions of engaged Alexa customers will make what we previously thought impossible possible."

Amazon will announce the winner at its AWS re:invent conference in November 2017.