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CICS Team Selected to Participate in Amazon Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge

Team will build on work completed in last year's challenge to develop a conversational task assistant to help customers complete complex tasks.

A UMass Amherst Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) team, led by Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval (CIIR) doctoral student Chris Samarinas and advised by Assistant Professor Hamed Zamani, is one of ten teams selected worldwide to participate in Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge 2

Zamani, associate director of the CIIR, also advised the student-led CIIR team  that participated in the inaugural 2021 Amazon Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge.   

This year's Alexa Prize competition challenges the teams to develop multimodal conversational task assistants to help customers in multistep tasks such as cooking a turkey. According to Amazon, this year's challenge will include more hobbies and at-home activities for the teams to propose new ideas for incorporating visual aids into the conversational experience for the user.  

The team, Maruna, will conduct cutting-edge research in multimodal conversational artificial intelligence (AI) by developing their new "MarunaBotV2" system according to the principles of robust performance and customer-focused design. "We know that robustness and advanced response generation capabilities will lead to a good conversation, but a careful customer-focused design will make a great system that customers will love to use," says Samarinas.  

For this year's challenge, the CIIR team will compete against teams from the NOVA School of Science and Technology, Penn State University, Purdue University, Rutgers University, The Ohio State University, University of California, Santa Cruz, University of Glasgow, University of Pittsburgh, and Virginia Tech. The University of Glasgow team, which won the inaugural TaskBot Challenge, is again advised by CIIR alum Jeff Dalton '14PhD.  

Each team selected receives $250,000 in research funding to compete, vying for a $500,000 prize awarded to the first-place team that will be announced in September 2023.  

"Learning from user feedback plays a key role in developing successful real-world conversational AI systems," says Zamani. "The Alexa Prize Challenge enables us to turn our academic research into building real-world conversational agents that help users with their complex tasks."  

In related research, Zamani received a National Science Foundation CAREER award in 2022 to advance his research on conversational IR systems.  

Amazon Alexa Prize Taskbot Challenge Team "Maruna": (left to right) Hamed Zamani, Pracha Promthaw, Hansi Zeng, Chris Samarinas, Rohan Lekhwani, Rahul Seetharaman, and Sheshera Mysore (shown on laptop)