Alexa, can Johns Hopkins improve communication between people and machines?

JHU among four school chosen for support from Alexa Fund Fellowship, which will encourage advances in voice communication between people, machines

At a time when more home, office, and vehicle devices respond to vocal commands, Amazon has selected Johns Hopkins University among the first four schools to receive support from the Alexa Fund Fellowship, a new program designed to encourage advances in voice communication between people and machines.

Amazon Echo

Image caption: Alexa is a voice service that powers devices like the Amazon Echo

Amazon has entered this field with Alexa, a voice service that powers devices such as the Amazon Echo. Through its new Alexa Fund Fellowship program, introduced today, the company will aid university students who are focusing on "transformative voice technologies such as text-to-speech, natural language understanding, automatic speech recognition, and conversational artificial intelligence," according to an online announcement by Douglas Booms, Amazon's vice president of worldwide corporate development.

Referring to the "enormous promise" of voice technology, Booms said, "Our teams here at Amazon are working hard to unlock that potential, but innovation requires a collective effort, from large companies like ours to two-person startups, and from casual hobbyists to major academic institutions."

To jump-start higher education efforts, the Alexa Fund Fellowship's first group of university participants, Booms announced, are Johns Hopkins University; Carnegie Mellon University; the University of Southern California; and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

At Johns Hopkins, the Alexa Fund Fellowship will support a doctoral student, called the Alexa Fellow, who will mentor and provide technical advice and supervision to students enrolled in a master's degree program that focuses on human language technology, including speech recognition and text understanding.

In this new program, groups of two to four master's students will team up to devise and test novel algorithms for speech and natural language processing and speaker recognition. The Alexa Fellow will offer guidance as these team projects evolve over two semesters. Amazon, in addition to its financial support for this doctoral student, will also provide Alexa-enabled devices for use in appropriate master's team projects.

Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering has been deeply involved in speech and language technology for at least two decades, when its Center for Language and Speech Processing was established. Widely considered one of the nation's top academic programs in this field, the center also hosts a highly-acclaimed summer workshop series that attracts many of the discipline's top scholars. A number of students who've conducted their doctoral dissertation research at the center have gone on to work for Amazon and other prominent technology firms. The Alexa Fund Fellowship is expected to expand this connection.

"We are pleased to deepen our relationship with Amazon through the Alexa Fund Fellowship to support our PhD program in our Center for Language and Speech Processing," said Ed Schlesinger, dean of the Whiting School. "Advancing our relationships with corporate leaders such as Amazon will assist us in our mission to continue to make positive impacts on society through our research, education, and translational activities."

The doctoral student who will serve as the first Alexa Fellow at Johns Hopkins is expected to be in place this fall to begin mentoring master's degree student teams in the language and speech processing program.