A team of UC Santa Barbara graduate students advised by UCSB computer science professors Xifeng Yan and William Wang have made their mark in the world of artificial intelligence (AI) by earning a second-place finish in the two-year Amazon Alexa Prize SimBot Challenge.
GauchoAI’s runner-up finish earned the team a $100,000 cash prize, which will be distributed equally among the students, who intend to use it to buy an actual robot and implement the system they designed. The SEAGULL team, from the University of Michigan, won the competition and a $500,000 award; and the UC Santa Cruz SlugJARVIS team took third place, earning a $50,000 prize. The final stage of the competition ran from March 31 to April 28, with final evaluations, made by a five-judge panel, taking place on May 3 in Boston.
“The Alexa Prize SimBot Challenge is widely recognized as one of the most prestigious AI competitions in the world, requiring teams to have a deep understanding of three computing disciplines: language, vision, and robotics,” said Wang, GauchoAI's founding faculty advisor. “I’m extremely proud of the GauchoAI team for their achievement in the competition, which included the top universities in computer science.”
“Our bot not only secured the top position in the user-feedback stage but also exhibited exceptional simplicity, so that it can more easily be generalized in complex environments,” said Yan. “The GauchoAI team recognized that instead of pursuing incremental improvements to existing methods, it is far more important to prioritize the discovery and experimentation of new insights pertaining to the Challenge.”
The SimBot Challenge is aimed at advancing the science of embodied AI agents — agents that interact with the environment through a physical body within that environment — that can engage effectively with humans by understanding, learning, and collaborating to achieve their given missions. Resa Ghanadan, a senior principal scientist at Alexa AI and the head of the Alexa AI Prize, said that the competition reflects the fact that “Next-generation autonomous AI assistants will need to be robust and versatile, and capable of learning and solving challenging tasks that require multimodal interactions with humans, other agents, and the environment.”
GauchoAI was one of five teams selected for the finals from an initial field of nine, eight from the United States and one from Spain. The team developed a user-centric, proactive embodied virtual robot assistant that set a new standard in the high-level competition by creating a solution that not only responded to commands, but also anticipated user needs.
“Our virtual robots should go beyond simply following human instructions,” said team leader, Jiachen Li, a second-year PhD student from the UCSB Natural Language Processing (NLP) Group. “The UCSB team set itself apart by placing paramount importance on the user experience. We leveraged Amazon’s text-to-speech technology to inject excitement into the robot's responses, enhancing the user experience. And we endowed our robot with the advanced ability to analyze interaction history to discern user intent, enabling it to proactively suggest potential next steps tailored to the user's needs.”
Li was joined on the GauchoAI team by third-year PhD student Tsu-Jui (Ray) Fu, first-year PhD student Deepak Nathani, and second-year CS PhD student Xinyi Wang. Those contributing to the early stages of the competition were first-year PhD student Alfonso Amayuelas, second-year PhD student Yujie Lu, and master’s student Eddie Zhang, who graduated in June and will begin his doctoral studies at Harvard University this coming fall.
"It was my great honor to lead this team of brilliant student colleagues in the Alexa SimBot Challenge, each of whom brought tremendous innovation to the project,” Li said. “Securing second place is a testament to our team's creativity, dedication, and ingenuity, as well as a worthy tribute to the empowering guidance of Professors Yan and Wang."
Both Yan and Wang are widely recognized NLP leaders. In a statement, they said, “We are extremely proud of GauchoAI's achievement. The team's tireless work, innovation, and commitment have truly embodied the spirit of UCSB. Their success in the competition showcases both our students’ talent and dedication, and the incredible potential that exists within the realm of AI.”