New Amazon-Illinois Center on AI for Interactive Conversational Experiences will guide emerging technology into a more intelligent, multimodal form

3/23/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

AICE Director and Illinois CS professor Heng Ji says it will aim to advance conversational AI techniques, like natural language understanding, multimodal knowledge acquisition, and intelligent human-computer interactions.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

To take the next steps in conversational artificial intelligence (AI) interfaces through research and application expertise, especially in natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning, Amazon and The Grainger College of Engineering recently created the new Amazon-Illinois Center on AI for Interactive Conversational Experiences (AICE).

Heng Ji
Professor Heng Ji

Chatbots and voice-based human-computer interactions represent another growing aspect of AI. Building the amazing technology that has already produced unique applications for interactive conversational experiences provided insight to this group that growth opportunities currently exist to produce its next iteration and a more intelligent form.

At the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the center will be jointly hosted by Illinois Computer Science and the Coordinated Science Laboratory (CSL).

"To begin AICE will focus on a multimodal form of knowledge acquisition. Some tools intake only textual data – such as news and product reviews – but a multimodal interface can continually learn and update knowledge from users through voice, text, image and video interactions to build its intelligence,” said Illinois CS professor Heng Ji, who is also an Amazon Scholar and CSL member, and will serve as AICE Director. AICE will also initially focus on building a knowledge grounded trustworthy system that provides a truthful natural language model. This will show where its knowledge comes from and attempt to eliminate reliance on any fake information or disinformation, a capability that is lacking in the existing natural language generation techniques. Finally, AICE will aim to provide lifelong learning opportunities for conversational AI, and there are a number of other areas for opportunity that AICE will surely uncover and grow into based on the expertise and ingenuity of the center’s researchers.

“We are thrilled to launch this new center, which brings together Amazon and UIUC faculty and students to jointly advance technologies that are fundamental to the future of conversational AI,” and said Rohit Prasad, Alexa senior vice president and head scientist. “The research advances made by the faculty and students in this center will fuel next-generation AI systems that are more context-aware, that understand and respond to emotions, and are even more natural and human-like.”

Already several examples exist of collaborative research between Ji’s Blender Lab and Amazon scientists that:

Building off already active research collaborations, Illinois CS and Amazon will begin developing the center based on a few primary categories of activities.

Funding will help create opportunities for several Ph.D. fellowships to support Ph.D. students at Illinois CS. Additionally, each term year will present opportunities for Illinois CS faculty, CSL faculty, and Amazon representatives to submit proposals for funding of research projects. Finally, the group will utilize funding to support or offer community and research activities in support of AICE objectives.

Nancy Amato
Nancy M. Amato

The growth of this effort will provide another remarkable opportunity within Illinois CS and the CSL to expand a portfolio of opportunities that lie at the cutting edge of impactful computing research.

“The increased capability for creative and collaborative research that will be possible through AICE is an excellent example of how our work at Illinois CS brings to life the University of Illinois mission. Together with the CSL and Amazon, AICE will enhance the student experience, grow community engagement, and create more opportunities for our research expertise to translate into real-world impact,” said Nancy M. Amato, Abel Bliss Professor of Engineering, Illinois CS Department Head, and CSL member.

ECE and CSL faculty member Rayadurgam Srikant
Rayadurgam Srikant

“As a premier, multidisciplinary research laboratory, CSL focuses on information technology at the crossroads of circuits, computing, control, and communications. AICE fits perfectly within our capabilities, and affords a wonderful opportunity to many of our leading researchers who operate within more than a dozen different disciplines,” said Rayadurgam Srikant, Acting CSL Director, Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering, and Illinois CS affiliate faculty member.

Next steps for AICE include a March call for research proposals and a September kickoff meeting.

Fellow leaders for AICE include Illinois CS professors and CSL members Julia Hockenmaier and Derek Hoiem, as well as Lav Varshney – professor with Electrical & Computer Engineering and Illinois CS affiliate faculty member. Ji also credited professor and Associate Dean for Research Harley Johnson, of Grainger Engineering, with helping put the center agreement into place.

Grainger Engineering Dean Rashid Bashir
Rashid Bashir

Involved leaders from Amazon include Center Liaison Ruhi Sarikaya, a Director in Alexa AI, and AICE advisory board members Angeliki Metallinou, Pradeep Natarajan and Andreas Stolcke, as well as project manager Vincent Ponzo. 

Involvement in the center will grow in the coming months through the addition of faculty PIs, potential collaboration with Amazon scientists, and more.

“Research happening throughout Grainger Engineering changes the world around us, and this agreement for a center between Illinois and Amazon that focuses on conversational experiences and AI will improve aspects of technology that impact our everyday life,” said Rashid Bashir, Dean of The Grainger College of Engineering.

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This story was published March 23, 2023.