Tech development

Heriot-Watt’s ‘chatty’ robot proves popular in touch-free era

Alana team at Heriot-Watt

A “chatty” robot developed at Heriot-Watt University is gaining growing attention as touch-free devices enjoy rising demand in the wake of the coronavirus.

Scientists have created Alana to engage in longer conversations and the prize-winning technology is now working with clients across a range of sectors including education, healthcare, and finance.

In education, it can serve as a personal tutor; in healthcare, it can help reduce isolation for patients and support carers when human interaction is not possible; and in finance, it can help streamline front and back-office processes which are often prone to human error. 

The founding team at Alana, whose name pays homage to the father of AI, Alan Turing, includes some of the world’s leading AI experts. The team 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.”

Even 10 years ago, the idea that we could converse with machines was science fiction

Oliver Lemon, Heriot-Watt

Professor Oliver Lemon, director of the Interaction Lab at Heriot-Watt University and Chief AI Officer and co-founder of Alana, said: “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.”

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