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AI Technology to Aid Touch-free Interface Demand After Coronavirus

David Paul


Touch-free Interface Alana

Heriot-Watt spin-out’s AI software will address high demand for touch-free interfaces in the coronavirus era.

Alana, a Heriot-Watt University spin-out developing artificial intelligence (AI) software that that can understand and respond to human conversation, has seen high demand for its technology in the wake of coronavirus.

The software can converse about a wide variety of information sources, making it useful across sectors where users want to access large amounts of information in an efficient and user-friendly way.

Alana works differently from similar AI tech due to it’s ability to manage conversations during long interactions, whilst learning about the user’s interests. This, in-turn, allows the AI to proactively suggest new and relevant subject matter.

The technology has already been recognised as a two-time finalist (2017, 2018) in the Amazon Alexa Prize, and the company is now working with clients across the education, healthcare and finance sectors, acting as a personal tutor, helping to reduce isolation for patients and support carers when human interaction is not possible and streamlining front and back-office processes which are often prone to human error.

The founding team at Alana includes some of the world’s leading experts on conversational AI, machine learning, human-robot interaction and multi-modal interfaces, and plans to make further hires this year as it moves into the next phase of commercialisation.


Verena Rieser, Director of the Natural Language Processing lab at Heriot-Watt and a co-founder of Alana, said: “Alana is different from the voice-activated assistants on the market today, such as Alexa and Siri, as the software enables long, extended conversations over many turns. Alana achieves this by combining the latest developments in machine learning research with well-established solutions for customer facing interfaces.”

Professor Oliver Lemon, Director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt University and Chief AI Officer and co-founder of Alana said: “Conversation is the operating system of everyday life. Even 10 years ago, the idea that we could converse with machines was science fiction.

“Now, we can build AI that is both engaging and useful, supporting humans in their daily lives at work, during leisure time and in the home. We are already working with clients in education, healthcare, and finance – but Alana’s applications are almost limitless.”

The Alana software is supported by the Enterprise team at Heriot-Watt University, now based at the university’s £19 million Global Research, Innovation and Discovery (GRID) facility which is fully operational ahead of its official launch later this year.

David Paul

Staff Writer, DIGIT

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