University of Waterloo joins Amazon's race to artificial intelligence Inc. has launched a new program to help students, including a team from the University of Waterloo, build capabilities into its voice-controlled assistant Alexa.

'We want Alexa to be a great sandbox' for students, company VP says

Mike George, VP Alexa, Echo and Appstore for Amazon, speaks abotu his company's partnership with LG during a press conference at CES in Las Vegas on Jan. 4. (Rick Wilking/Reuters) Inc. has launched a new program to help students build capabilities into its voice-controlled assistant Alexa, and a team from the University of Waterloo will take part.

The e-commerce company told Reuters it is paying for a year-long doctoral fellowship at four universities for an undisclosed sum. 

Working with professors, the Alexa Fund Fellows will help students tackle complex technology problems in class on Alexa, like how to convert text to speech or process conversation. 

The schools in the program are Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California and the University of Waterloo.

"We want Alexa to be a great sandbox" for students, said Doug Booms, vice president of worldwide corporate development at Amazon, in an interview Wednesday. 

Students retain intellectual property

He added the fellowship's goal is to excite the next generation of scholars about natural language understanding and other voice technologies, not to produce research for Amazon. 

Under the program, students' projects remain their own intellectual property. 

At the University of Waterloo, students are improving Alexa's interaction with air conditioners so it understands requests to cool a room to its normal temperature, without requiring the user to specify a number in Celsius, said Fakhri Karray, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who is overseeing the work. 

Race to monetize AI

Amazon, Google and others are locked in a race to develop and monetize artificial intelligence.

Unlike some rivals, Amazon has made it easy for third-party developers to create skills for Alexa so it can get better faster – a tactic it now is extending to the classroom. 

The fellowship may also help Amazon recruit sought-after engineers whose studies will make them more familiar with Alexa than with other voice-controlled assistants.

Securing close ties to university talent and research has become an urgent priority for many tech firms. Uber Technologies Inc. in 2015 took 40 people from Carnegie Mellon's robotics center in-house to work on self-driving cars and other projects. Microsoft Corp. has awarded fellowships to doctoral researchers in different areas of computer science, like artificial intelligence, for years. 

Amazon itself created the Alexa Prize competition among universities to push forward conversational artificial intelligence, with a $100,000 stipend for each sponsored team. 

The money for the new fellowship comes from the Alexa Fund, an investment by Amazon of up to $100 million to advance voice technology.