Feb. 28, 2020
Alexa, tell me about the new CWU partnership
Amazon’s popular cloud-based voice service, Alexa, will soon be reminding CWU students about exam dates, class schedules, and other information specific to their lives.
Through a partnership involving the university’s Computer Science and Information Technology and Administrative Management (ITAM) departments, along with the consulting firm Hybrid Cloud Gurus, CWU computer science seniors will be involved in a capstone course to customize Alexa devices to make them more campus- and student-centric.
“Voice-enabled technology, and how it can benefit the students here on campus, is something we have been thinking about for some time,” said Andreas Bohman, CWU vice president of Operations, which will supply the Echo Dot devices needed for the project. “The intent is for students to have voice-enabled technology in their residence hall rooms.”
Bob Rapp, Hybrid Cloud Gurus principal, said the platform was selected simply because, “Echo devices have won the battle for the consumer-voice interface.”
With that in mind, Bohman points out the initial project will identify the 200 most commonly-asked questions by Ellensburg campus students, along with the appropriate answers, to be programmed into an Alexa skill. Beyond that, it could later integrate with the university’s course catalog to help students find classrooms or determine appropriate classes for their specific degree programs.
Szilárd Vajda, CWU computer science professor, will serve as the participating students’ project advisor.
“As computer scientists, we generally teach—and are good—in the technical part,” he said. “In terms of the security and management parts [of the project], we look forward to work with ITAM on that.”
Bob Lupton, ITAM department chair, added, “I think this is going to lead to even more collaboration, which, in this modern world, is a good thing. We are excited to collaborate and add value to an already amazing project.”
Emily Bodenhamer, a senior from Montesano, is among the students who will work on the project which will officially take place during winter quarter. She said the fact that it will involve artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning encouraged her to get involved.
“Those are the biggest up-and-coming subjects right now in the computer science field,” she said. “Some components of AI are discussed in our classes and there is a dedicated machine learning course at Central that teaches about the back end of what it does and how it works. But, getting a chance to work even more with something involving AI and machine learning will be very beneficial when I go out and look for a job.”
Bohman expects the project to evolve much further in the future.
“We may be able to tie it into the university’s Connection Card so students can put money on their cards using this voice-activated technology,” he said. “However, there is care to be taken because security it a big piece of this.”
Rapp said security is not the only challenge that will be faced in refining the user experience.
“If we were going to limit this to just a student residence hall, we could develop it [Alexa skill] to respond a single voice,” he continued. “But we are going to also have this available in some public spaces and to respond to any voice. So not only are privacy and security issues big issues, another one is accuracy.”
Bohman called the overall project, “a small portion of what we should do as an institution to prepare for Generation Alpha. They are, essentially, children born in 2010 and later who are coming to campus with an expectation of accessibility to technology.”
Media contact: Robert Lowery, Department of Public Affairs, director of Radio Services and Integrated Communications, 509-963-1487, Robert.Lowery@cwu.edu
Photo: Bob Rapp, Hybrid Cloud Gurus principal, addresses two of the CWU seniors involved in the new capstone project.