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The Data Lab launches new partnership with the BBC and University of Glasgow

A new partnership between The Data Lab, the BBC and the University of Glasgow will research how the next generation of voice assistant technology can become a socially engaging conversational experience. 

The BBC launched Beeb – its first voice technology assistant – in June 2020, and the national broadcaster hopes the new collaboration will help keep it at the forefront of media innovation and enhance the experience of its audiences. 

The academic partnership made possible by The Data Lab will see scientists from the University of Glasgow’s GRILL Lab, a research unit that develops new methods for machine understanding of natural language text and data, share its research with the BBC on how to advance voice assistant technology. 

Today, virtual assistants, such as Alexa and Google Assistant, can perform basic single-step tasks like answering questions and playing music. However, Dr Jeff Dalton and his team at the University of Glasgow are working on new forms of conversational artificial intelligence that could significantly enhance the capabilities of the technology.  

Gillian Docherty, CEO of The Data Lab, said: “Conversational AI represents a fascinating and essential evolution for voice assistants. The implications for user experiences and accessibility are far-reaching and it’s fantastic to see Scotland at the forefront of artificial intelligence research once again. We’re delighted to be supporting the project and to have facilitated the academic partnership between the BBC and the University of Glasgow.” 

Chris Dix, head of architecture at BBC, said: “We’ve recently unveiled a first version of our voice assistant, Beeb, and have been exploring the exciting space of conversational AI for three years. This new collaboration with The Data Lab and the University of Glasgow gives us an additional way to build our long-term-view of what’s possible in this space. 

“We’re particularly interested to explore and help advance cutting-edge research relating to social and task-based conversation, helping us build a truly socially engaging conversational experience that ensures people get the most value from the BBC.” 

Dr Jeff Dalton, lecturer in information retrieval at the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, said: “I’m excited to be partnering with the BBC and The Data Lab on this ambitious project. 

“The BBC is a leader and innovator in Voice and AI media and its archive of content is one of the world’s richest and most widely trusted. My team at the University’s GRILL Lab and I are excited to research the future of virtual assistants capable of engaging in social interactions that allow people to discover and engage with that diverse content in fundamentally new ways.” 

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