Amazon Alexa creator Rohit Prasad speaks at 2018 Darsh T. Wasan Lecture

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Mon Nov 26, 2018
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Among Illinois Tech’s lineage of innovators and problem solvers, Rohit Prasad (graduated in 1999 with a master of science in electrical engineering) holds a very unique distinction as the Vice President and Head Scientist of the ubiquitous online retailer Amazon’s virtual voice-responding assistant, Alexa. Because of this legacy, Prasad was invited to speak at Illinois Tech’s 2018 installment of the Darsh T. Wasan Lecture series, held on the afternoon of Monday, November 12 in Hermann Hall.

After opening remarks by President Alan Cramb where he introduced both Prasad and Wasan, Prasad then took to the stage to begin his lecture, titled “The Story of Alexa: AI for Daily Convenience.” He began by taking a broad look at the impact Alexa currently has on the world, with over 1200 people in seven countries working under Prasad on the assistant, which he believes will continue to change the way humans interact on a daily basis. “It’s not science fiction. It’s science fact,” Prasad stated as he discussed his inspiration for his work on Alexa - the portrayals of artificial intelligence (AI) in science fiction movies and television shows.

The fantastical dreams of intergalactic explorers talking to their starships’ onboard intelligence systems no longer have to be just works of fiction; Prasad believes they can happen now. Through creations such as Alexa, these sorts of interactions are becoming part of the social fabric of reality. With Amazon Echo devices serving millions of customers in over 80 countries, Prasad sees that “this is not a dream anymore. It is actually happening.”

His lecture then looked at the historical developments in human-computer interaction that have led to Alexa since the 1960s, culminating in the development of voice user interaction (VUI) that allows one to simply talk to a device to get something done. As opposed to the hundreds of apps and searching required in the early 2000s, Prasad sees this “cognitive burden” being eased by the solution of using voice. He sees this solution as “the most natural way to interact” and one that the human brain is naturally wired to do.

In creating the VUI solution, Prasad saw three things that had to be done right: automatic speech recognition where Alexa can recognize individual words that are said, natural language understanding so that strings of words can actually have coherent meaning, and skills for it to actually speak back in a natural way. To achieve these, Prasad also discussed three technological trends of the modern day that helped work towards these goals: data and resources to analyze the home environment, computing power to actually run this data, and an ongoing “deep learning wave.”

Amazon Alexa is also becoming increasingly democratized and open to other developers. Through the Amazon Skills Set, users can create their own skills for Alexa to respond to, such as asking Alexa to order a pizza. In addition, Alexa Voice Service allows for possible integration with other smart devices. Between these two initiatives, Alexa has over 50,000 developed skills and over 100 different device type connections from over 325,000 developers from over 190 countries. In addition, the Alexa Fund also offers $100 million in venture funding for promising innovators and developers.

Prasad then turned his attention to the future of Alexa and his customer promise that the platform “will get better every day.” He sees Alexa becoming “more competent” by both adding more skills to its repertoire and becoming more accurate in hearing and executing them, “more knowledgeable” by being able to answer more factual questions with billions of possible data points, “more context-aware” by being better able to look at the context of both raw information and the interactions surrounding it, and “more natural” by having improved memory retrieval and multi-step capabilities.

To conclude his lecture, Prasad looked ahead to the future of Alexa. By 2025, he predicts there being 75 billion connected devices with continued room for making daily interactions more convenient. As Prasad himself stated, “it’s still day one.” Much more work on the Alexa platform and on interactive AI in general will continue to grow and augment the everyday experience. The work done so far simply marks the beginning.

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2018 - Fall - Issue 11
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