Amazon Offers $2.5M To Make Alexa Your Friend

Amazon has unveiled the Alexa Prize, a $2.5 Million purse for the first team to turn Alexa, the voice service that powers the Amazon Echo, into a ‘socialbot’ capable of, “conversing coherently and engagingly with humans on popular topics for 20 minutes”.

The Alexa Prize is only open to teams from colleges or universities, with the winning team taking home $500,000 USD, with $1M awarded to the team’s college or university in the form of a research grant. Of course, the Alexa Prize grants Amazon a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free license to make use of the winning socialbot.

It may be argued the Alexa Prize is a competition to have a chat bot pass a Turning Test. This is a false equivalency; the Turing Test, as originally formulated, requires a human evaluator to judge between two conversation partners, one of which is a human, one of which is a computer. Additionally, the method of communication is text-only, whereas the Alexa Prize will make use of Alexa’s Text to Speech functionality. The Alexa Prize is not a Turing Test, but only because of semantics. If you generalize the phrase, ‘Turing Test’ to mean a test of natural language conversation, the Alexa Prize is a Turing Test.

This is not the first prize offered for a computer program that is able to communicate with a human in real time using natural language. Since 1990, the Loebner Prize, cosponsored by AI god Marvin Minsky, has offered a cash prize of $100,000 (and a gold medal) to the first computer that is indistinguishable from a human in conversation. Since 1991, yearly prizes have been awarded to the computer that is most like a human as part of the competition.

For any team attempting the enormous task of developing a theory of mind and consciousness, here are a few tips: don’t use Twitter as a dataset. Microsoft tried that, and their chatbot predictably turned racist. A better idea would be to copy Hackaday and our article-generating algorithm. Just use Markov chains and raspberry pi your way to arduino this drone.

Taking a U2F Hardware Key from Design to Production

Building a circuit from prototyping to printed circuit board assembly is within the reach of pretty much anyone with the will to get the job done. If that turns out to be something that everyone else wants, though, the job gets suddenly much more complex. This is what happened to [Conor], who started with an idea to create two-factor authentication tokens and ended up manufacturing an selling them on Amazon. He documented his trials and tribulations along the way, it’s both an interesting and perhaps cautionary tale.

[Conor]’s tokens themselves are interesting in their simplicity: they use an Atmel ATECC508A specifically designed for P-256 signatures and keys, a the cheapest USB-enabled microcontroller he could find: a Silicon Labs EFM8UB1. His original idea was to solder all of the tokens over the course of one night, which is of course overly optimistic. Instead, he had the tokens fabricated and assembled before being shipped to him for programming.

Normally the programming step would be straightforward, but using identical pieces of software for every token would compromise their security. He wrote a script based on the Atmel chip and creates a unique attestation certificate for each one. He was able to cut a significant amount of time off of the programming step by using the computed values with a programming jig he built to flash three units concurrently. This follows the same testing and programming path that [Bob Baddeley] advocated for in his Tools of the Trade series.

From there [Conor] just needed to get set up with Amazon. This was a process worthy of its own novel, with Amazon requiring an interesting amount of paperwork from [Conor] before he was able to proceed. Then there was an issue of an import tariff, but all-in-all everything seems to have gone pretty smoothly.

Creating a product from scratch like this can be an involved process. In this case it sounds like [Conor] extracted value from having gone through the entire process himself. But he also talks about a best-case-scenario margin of about 43%. That’s a tough bottom line but a good lesson anyone looking at building low-cost electronics.

Noise Cancelling Speech Recogntion

If you are like us, you’ll read a bit more and smack your forehead. Amazon recently filed a patent. That isn’t really news, per se–they file lots of patents, including ones that cover clicking on a button to order something and taking pictures against white backgrounds (in a very specific way). However, this patent is not only a good idea, but one we were surprised didn’t arise out of the hacker community.

There can’t be an invention without a problem and the problem this one solves is a common one: While wearing noise cancelling headphones, you can’t hear things that you want to hear (like someone coming up behind you). The Amazon solution? Let the headphones monitor for programmable keywords and turn off noise cancellation in response to those words. We wonder if you could have a more sophisticated digital signal processor look for other cues like a car horn, a siren, or a scream.

We’ve talked about fixing commercial noise cancelling headphones before. If you don’t mind going low-tech, there’s always the easy way out, but those aren’t likely to accommodate speech recognition.

This File Will Self-Destruct in 24 hours

[menkveldj] built a service that encrypts files which self destruct in 24 hours. The download link can only be used once. If the wrong people were to get the link and download the file, they’d need many years on a pretty powerful computer to crack the 256AES encryption.

The sender shares a file that is encrypted client side using a password generated Pbkdf2 key to encrypt the data before uploading it to the s3 storage service. The sender is then provided the one-time-use link to share with the recipient. After the first download, or 24 hours, the link and the encrypted file are both deleted. The receiver must enter the same password to decrypt and recover the file. No one but the sharer and receiver know what the actual file is.

It’s still work in progress, so chime in with your comments and suggestions. To dig into the code, check out his repository on Github, which also has instructions to build and run it if you’d like to do your own version.

Oh, and you’ll like this. If want to thumb your nose at the powers that be, the site has a redirect for the whimsical domain: NSAfu.com.

Hacking Online Reviews

For this post, I want to return the word hacking to its nefarious definition. We prefer the kinder definition of a hacker as someone who creates or modifies things to fit some purpose or to improve its function. But a hacker can also be someone who breaks into computer systems or steals phone service or breaks encryption.

There are some “hacker battlefields” that are very visible. Protecting credit card numbers from hackers is a good example. But there are some subtle ones that many people don’t notice. For example, the battle for online reviews. You know, like on Amazon when you rate the soldering iron you bought and leave a note about how it works. That might seem like a strange place for hacking until you stop and think about why people do bad hacking.

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Let Alexa Control Your Life; Guide to Voice-Enable Everything

Let’s face it, automation doesn’t feel quite as futuristic unless you can just say what you want out loud and have the machines flawlessly obey. That is totally possible now — and on the cheap. Well, cheap as far as money goes. It can be an expensive learning curve to get it all working. This will help. [Lindo St. Angel] has put together a guide to navigate voice control of hardware using Amazon’s Alexa SDK.

We previously reported that Amazon’s AI had escaped its hardware prison in the form of the Alexa Skills Kit. Yes, calling it the Alexa SDK above is wrong it’s actually the ASK but nobody knows what that acronym is while most recognize the gist of an SDK. It gives you the hooks and the documentation necessary to leverage the functionality in your own applications. The core functionality of Alexa is voice recognition. Even so, it’s still a tall hill to climb.

[Lindo] has broken down the problem into a very manageable example. The Amazon Voice Service (part of ASK) is used for voice recognition and control. Amazon’s Lambda service connects the ASK to your piece of hardware; in this case he’s using a Raspberry Pi as the server. The final step is to connect your hardware to the Pi. [Lindo] is interfacing a keypad-based home automation system with the Pi but the sky’s the limit at this point.

With all the authentication and connectivity laid bare, this is a lot more approachable. The question is no longer can you connect everything to voice control. The question becomes should you give control of everything over to one single online service?

Amazon Giving Out (Sort Of) Hackable Amazon Dash Button

We’ve seen some interesting hacks of the Amazon Dash buttons, a neat device where you press a button and it orders a product from Amazon for you. Now, [Amazon] themselves are getting into the hacking fun with the AWS IoT Button. This is a Dash button that Amazon is giving out at events to promote their new Amazon Web Services (AWS) Internet of Things (IoT) service.

As part of their efforts to take over the world, the AWS IoT service allows you to create button-based services like ordering pizza or starting Netflix, but without running your own server. Instead, Amazon handles all of the hard stuff behind the scenes on their Lambda engine, which receives the small bit of JSON that the button sends and runs a Lambda function that orders pizza, kicks off Netflix, then starts World War III. Amazon provides sample actions for things like launching the missiles sending a text message over Twilio and writing to a database. Amazon isn’t selling these buttons: they only seem to be available as swag at events. Make a loud enough noise in the comments section and maybe they’ll allocate some for the Hackaday community.

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