Verena Rieser

Machine Learning for Conversational Assistants: How far can we get?

Conversational Assistants have experienced a revolution over the past decade, moving from being completely handcrafted to using data-driven machine learning methods. In this talk, I will review current developments including my work on using reinforcement learning and deep learning models - and evaluate these methods in the light of recent results from two large-scale studies on response generation in dialogue: First, I will summarise results from the End-to-End NLG Challenge for presenting information in task-based dialogue systems. Second, I will report my experience from experimenting with these models for generating responses in open-domain social dialogue as part of the Amazon Alexa Prize challenge. Finally, I will discuss future challenges when learning from data.

Verena Rieser is a Professor in Artificial Intelligence at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, where she leads the NLP lab and is affiliated with the Interaction Lab and the Edinburgh Center for Robotics. Verena holds a PhD from Saarland University (2008) and did her PostDoc at the University of Edinburgh (2008-2011). She also has 2 children.

The ongoing theme of Verena's research is to develop intelligent conversational systems, such as chatbots and virtual personal assistants, where she researches machine learning techniques to automatically build these systems from data. She has authored over 100 peer-reviewed papers in this area. For example, Verena was one of the first researchers to introduce Reinforcement Learning to optimise task-based dialogues. For the past 2 years, Verena's team was the only UK university to enter the finals of the prestigious Amazon Alexa Challenge, which aims to build open-domain chatbots.

Verena's work was also recognised with a number of prizes, including the Dr-Eduard-Martin Prize for outstanding research, winner of the SemEval 2016 Shared Task on Arabic Sentiment Analysis, and runner-up for the Amazon Alexa Prize 2017 and 2018. In 2019 alone, Verena was invited to be the keynote speaker of 7 international conferences and workshops. Verena's outreach activities have been recognised with the EPSRC Public Engagement Award 2018, a Herald Higher Education Award 2018 for Heriot-Watt's "Year of Robotics", as well as with a nomination as one of "12 Women Shaping AI" by NESTA, "One to Watch 2019" by FutureScot and as "Pioneering Women in AI" by The Telegraph, 2019.

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