Yarosh Receives Google Research Award

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April 5, 2018

"Ok, Google, tell me a joke!"

If you share your home with a kid and a voice assistant (Google Home, Alexa, Siri, etc.), you may have overheard requests like this. However, Assistant Professor Lana Yarosh and her team noticed that what kids say is not always what the voice assistant hears or understands. Her goal is to find ways parents, children, and voice assistants can live and work together more harmoniously. Her research recently caught the eye of Google, which awarded her the 2017 Google Faculty Research Award.

Through an early investigation, Yarosh’s team found that children struggle specifically with rewording, or reformulating, their requests so the voice assistant system can understand them. For example, a voice assistant may be able to understand "tell me a joke" but unable to understand "I want to hear something funny."

Though some children had requests met through trial and error without guidance, Yarosh’s team saw some areas in which these interactions could be improved, especially for younger children. One way grew somewhat naturally out of their study, where they saw how well parents collaborated with their children while they used the voice assistant; parents effectively were able to teach their children ways to communicate more clearly with the system.

Another key area they saw that could be improved was that the voice assistant itself could provide visible feedback regarding what it heard or understood.

“A combination of visual and voice interaction could really be the sweet spot for making the most out of voice assistants,” said Yarosh.

With the help of this Google Award, Professor Yarosh developed a prototype voice interface and asked 100 parents and children at the Minnesota State Fair to try it out. Volunteer families interacted with the prototype voice assistant on common everyday tasks, such as cooking together, doing homework, or planning a family activity. Based on the families’ experience, the research team will be able to provide concrete recommendations for how to improve voice assistants to be more usable and more useful for families with children.

“The bottom line is that we hope to reduce the number of times families have to hear ‘I don't know how to help with that’ from their voice assistant,” Yarosh added. 

Professor Yarosh joins a small group of Google Awardees in receiving this award. According to the Research at Google website, only around 15 percent of applicants receive this highly-competitive award.

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The research team: Irene Ye Yuan (CS&E Ph.D. student), Katie Watson (CS&E Undergraduate), Stryker Thompson (CS&E Undergraduate), Lana Yarosh (CS&E Assistant Professor), Ashwin Senthilkumar (Eden Prairie High School Student). No pictured team members: Alice Chase (CS&E Undergraduate) and AJ Brush (Microsoft Researcher).

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