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Michigan Students Help Advance Conversational AI Thanks To Alexa Innovation Fellowship

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Artificial Intelligence, or AI as it is commonly known, has been part of pop culture for decades.  From talking Pontiac Trans-Ams to Constitution-class starships and time-traveling Terminators, the concept has been around since at least the 1930s.  And while some movies, TV shows, and comic books have played upon the idea of technology being sentient and turning on their human creators, others have a more positive take.

Amazon has established the Alexa Fellowships to help a select number of universities educate the next generation of individuals interested in creating technology that utilizes voice interfaces. The Fellowships include funding to support student-facing entrepreneurial activities (such as courses, workshops, or grant awards), help students enhance various technologies with voice integrations,  and provide the latest Alexa-enabled devices for student use.

Amazon’s Innovation Fellows are divided into two different fellowships, the Graduate Fellowship and the Innovation Fellowship (each tasked with developing different results).  The Graduate Fellowship is aimed at assisting PhD and post-doctoral students in their research on conversational AI.  The Innovation Fellowship provides the resources entrepreneurial faculty need to assist student entrepreneurs in developing voice technology.

The University of Michigan’s Center for Entrepreneurship was one of ten institutions chosen to be part of Amazon’s 2018-19 Innovation Fellowship.  Matt Gibson, Director of Educational Programs, Christine Gordon, Assistant Director of Curriculum and Experiential Learning, and Eric Bacyinski, Director of External Engagement and Mentorship, were selected as Alexa Fellows for the program.

Bacyinski and Gordon traveled to Amazon’s Seattle HQ in October ‘18 for training to familiarize themselves with the Alexa Fellowships team and network with some successful Alexa Fund entrepreneurs (such as U-M affiliated Vesper which has raised $15M+). They learned how the Alexa team approaches product development, what advances the Alexa team was excited about, and what they could take back to the CFE’s students to increase their success.

While in Seattle, Eric and Christine were introduced to U-M LSA/Econ (‘08) and Ross (‘14) alum, Kevin Crosby, Portfolio Management – Alexa Fund at Amazon.

“Folks are nominated as an Alexa Innovation Fellow with the goal to think about how to maximize voice-enabled technology, create content, and help students think about building voice based companies,” says Crosby.

At U-M’s student-run ‘Makeathon’ back in February, Alexa was one of the main platforms students were encouraged to leverage while solving the problems presented. Several of the mentors who helped the teams competing are current Amazon employees who are also U-M alumni. One of the goals of this year’s Makeathon was to utilize Alexa’s voice-enabled capabilities in their end product.

Alexa’s impact on campus didn’t stop at the Makeathon as Kevin Crosby returned to campus on April 19th to guest-lecture U-M’s largest entrepreneurship class (ENTR 407 – Entrepreneurship Hour) about the vast potential of conversational A.I.’s societal integration.

“I want students to realize there are multiple paths they can take coming out of school, especially with an engineering education, be it in entrepreneurship or intrapreneurship at a larger company,” Crosby explained. He also implored students to ensure they thoroughly evaluate what unique opportunities exist after graduation and consider how their own niche strengths align with an organization’s culture and environment before starting a career there.

U-M’s participation in the Alexa Innovation Fellowship is set to run through 2019; learn more about this innovative program here.

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