Amazon picks Johns Hopkins, 3 other universities to work on voice services

Family members play a game of rock-paper-scissors with “Alexa,” their Amazon Echo wireless speaker and voice command personal assistant, at their home in San Diego’s Scripps Ranch community.

The Johns Hopkins University is among four schools tapped by Amazon to help perfect its voice service known as Alexa.

Alexa is an intelligent personal assistant, developed by the online retailer and sold to consumers in Amazon Echo devices, a suite of voice-activated devices that can retrieve information, play music, set alarms, order items online and even provide networked home automation.


Amazon announced the Alexa Fund Fellowship this week, naming Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Southern California and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, as the first participants in the program.

The program is designed to support universities and researchers with voice technologies such as text-to-speech, natural language understanding, automatic speech recognition and conversational artificial intelligence.


"We've barely scratched the surface of what's possible in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and speech science, and we believe more education and research among academic institutions is key to fueling progress in the space," Doug Booms, Amazon's vice president of worldwide corporate development, wrote in a blog post about the fellowship.

"We also recognize the potential for this research to produce viable business concepts," he wrote. "The initial cohort of universities was selected in part for the quality of their technology transfer and entrepreneurship programs, and we're excited to work with them to support Alexa Fund Fellows interested in commercializing their work."

The universities will receive funding, access to Alexa devices and mentoring from an Alexa Science team member to develop an undergraduate or graduate curriculum pertaining to one or more of these disciplines.

Johns Hopkins will use the fellowship to support a doctoral student who will work with students in a master's program on human language technology, including speech recognition and text understanding. Working in teams over two semesters, the students will develop algorithms for speech and natural language processing and speaker recognition.

"We are pleased to deepen our relationship with Amazon through the Alexa Fund's support of our Ph.D. program in our Center for Language and Speech Processing," Ed Schlesinger, the Benjamin T. Rome Dean of Johns Hopkins' Whiting School of Engineering, said in a statement. "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."

Alexa and Amazon Echo have raised concern among privacy advocates because it records conversations and saves them to the cloud to improve future responses, though users may delete such recordings.