UI partners with Amazon to establish AI center on campus


Candice Zhou

Wei Wang, sophomore in LAS, coding in Grainger.

By Liam Mathews, Staff Writer

While it may come as a surprise to some University students, conversational artificial intelligence has other uses than providing homework answers or writing essays. This burgeoning field is projected to help people around the world in areas such as data collection, translation and time saving in general.

In hopes of capitalizing on the massive potential for growth in this field, the University is partnering with Amazon to create its very own conversational AI center. The Amazon-Illinois Center on Artificial Intelligence for Interactive Conversational Experience will be led by University professor Heng Ji, an expert on information extraction and natural language processing, and her team of researchers.

According to its mission plan, the AICE center will seek to answer several unanswered questions in the field of conversational AI. Some of the center’s goals are to create an AI capable of gathering knowledge faster and even picking up on social and emotional cues from its human conversational partners. This goal will be achieved through the funding of three to five research projects through the AICE center. Tenured professors, researchers and other faculty may file a proposal for their specific research with Ji and her coworkers at the project. Once proposals are selected, whoever proposed it will be named the project’s principal investigator, and they may select graduate students to work alongside themselves and Amazon researchers.

“We want to focus on knowledge-guided conversational AI, we’ll make sure their information is useful and that everything is done in a very fair and democratic way,” Ji said.

AI that is commonly used today can learn about its users but remembers nothing of their personality or habits. Ji hopes that researchers can find a way to make their programs learn, and remember aspects of their users’ lives, personalities and more. These skills will theoretically allow conversational AI to be far more helpful on a wide range of topics.

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“We want to have this lifelong learning component, we want some system that can learn from conversation and really become your best friend,” Ji said. “It will keep updating its knowledge.”

In addition to her work teaching computer science at the University, she also works as an Amazon Scholar. As an Amazon Scholar, Ji works as a sort of consultant for the company. This role involves writing and organizing launch plans for projects and innovations in the next three to five years. Ji has used her role to uplift some of Amazon’s academic publications and even led students towards internships and jobs at the company.

Several universities were in competition to secure the funding for a similar center through Amazon. Amazon Science has cooperated with other academic institutions, such as UCLA and Columbia, to found similar research centers in the past that are still in operation today.

“I was not very hopeful we would get it, but they chose us because we have such wonderful students,” Ji said. “They are very happy with the internship work that our students have done for them.” 

Ji is happy that the AICE center will mix the academic world with the growing industry of conversational AI development.

“I’m hoping to achieve some sort of balance between academic and industry research,” Ji said. “We want to do some more solid and deeper research that everyone can build and use, we want to advance this field.”


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