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Zamani, Hashemi, CIIR Team Selected for 2021 Amazon Alexa Prize Challenge

Hamed Zamani, Helia Hashemi

A group of researchers at the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) led by Assistant Professor Hamed Zamani and doctoral student Helia Hashemi is one of ten teams worldwide selected to compete in the 2021 Alexa Prize TaskBot Challenge. Each team receives $250,000 in funding to compete in a conversational artificial intelligence challenge to develop agents that assist customers in completing cooking and do-it-yourself projects that require multiple steps and decisions. The winning team will receive a $500,000 prize.

Zamani, who serves as associate director of the Center for Intelligent Information Retrieval (CIIR) at CICS, and Hashemi will work with a group of students at the CIIR advised by Zamani, along with students advised by Distinguished Professor Emeritus Bruce Croft and Assistant Professor Mohit Iyyer.

“We are excited to take on the TaskBot Challenge,” Zamani says. “As a world-leading research group on conversational search, we have recently developed models for mixed-initiative conversational search and invested in pushing the boundaries of multi-modal conversational search systems. This challenge is a unique opportunity for us to expand our development and evaluate our systems within the Alexa platform by interacting with real users.”

The team’s focus will be on the information retrieval and natural language processing aspects of the challenge. According to Zamani, they will work to create an information-need understanding pipeline that can identify correct recipes or instructions, as well as a pipeline for walking users all the way through a selected project. To support these pipelines, the researchers will work to develop an interactive retrieval model that can handle various types of complex queries, design a novel multimodal result presentation model that highlights the unique characteristics of each retrieved item, and train models that can create mixed initiative interactions with the users.

Zamani is an assistant professor at CICS currently focusing on neural information retrieval and conversational search. Prior to his appointment in 2020, he was a researcher at Microsoft studying problems of search engines. He received his doctorate in computer science in 2019 from CICS under the direction of Bruce Croft, and his master’s and bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering from the University of Tehran in 2015 and 2013.