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Amazon Fellowship to Help Emerson Innovate with Voice

Pothen with Echo Dot

Emerson Launch Director Sanjay Pothen holds an Echo Dot, part of a Voice@Emerson initiative being supported by an Amazon Alexa Innovation Fellowship. Photo/Molly Loughman

Emerson College is one of 18 colleges and universities around the globe – and the only institution dedicated to arts and communication – selected by Amazon for a fellowship aimed at advancing voice-enabled technology on college campuses and throughout society.

With the help of Amazon’s Alexa Innovation Fellowship, Emerson Launch, the College’s hub for entrepreneurship and innovation, will receive technology, resources, and training to grow Voice@Emerson, beginning with the School of Communication. This fall, Emerson Launch will voice-enable various spots on campus (outside certain elevator banks and theaters) with Amazon Alexa products to help people become more familiar with voice technology.

“Voice-enabling the campus is a first step towards voice-enabling the college,” said Emerson Launch director Sanjay Pothen, who hopes to develop curriculum around voice technology down the road. “With the world moving to voice, for our students, this is where the future of work is going to be – a whole industry is cropping up around voice technology.”

Ten institutions are receiving the Innovation Fellowship, which aims to help campus entrepreneurial and innovation centers envision and implement novel and useful applications for voice. Joining Emerson are schools such as Dartmouth College, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and the University of Southern California.

“Beyond the engineering, behind voice technology, there’s a need for the other side of the brain… for creative skills and to best understand how voice will be adopted by consumers,” said Pothen.

Amazon is also presenting Alexa Graduate Fellowships to 10 universities (two schools are receiving both). The Graduate Fellowships are geared more toward back-end research, helping doctoral and post-doctoral students study machine learning, speech science, and conversational artificial intelligence.

As the world evolves from Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) to Voice-User Interface (VUI), Emerson Launch is championing this change by installing smart speakers around campus, deploying the College’s first voice skills, and building out an Emerson Voice Lab where students can interact and innovate with various voice technologies.

“From a marketing perspective, the world is moving from analog to digital to what we’re calling ‘conversational marketing,’ where brands are going to be able to interact with consumers in two-way dialogue. This is primarily taking the form of voice and artificial intelligence,” Pothen said.

“We’re going to have a world of smart speakers, smart homes, smart cars. We won’t have to pick up our phones, we won’t have to go to the computer, we won’t have to go to the thermostat – we’ll be able to use our voice and live a ‘smart’ life. As we think about where the world is going, we feel Emerson College is in a good position to lead in this voice-first world.”

Emerson Launch’s newly adopted focus on voice technology kicked off with a voice hack-a-thon held last spring, where Amazon representatives helped demonstrate voice technology to students via the Echo and other Alexa-enabled products. Students then broke into groups to brainstorm how voice technology could apply to their daily lives in an academic setting.

To further their understanding of the target audience and test the viability of voice, Emerson Launch conducted a survey of Generation Z students from Emerson and other institutions to gauge interest in voice technology, receptivity, and adoption. The survey results, which revealed that many students already own voice technology, were presented by Pothen last month at the inaugural VOICE Summit, held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

“We found that our Emerson students are interested in voice technology helping them with their academic pursuits and interests,” Pothen said, adding that Emerson Launch created two new “skills,” or apps: access to Emerson’s radio station, WERS 88.9 FM, and Emerson Em, a skill created to answer FAQs and to find out more about campus info, events, and activities. Both skills are live and available on the Amazon store.

Emerson Launch student worker Aakanksha Gupta, who will soon graduate Emerson with a master’s degree in Civic Media Art and Practice, has focused her studies on how technology and art drive social change. At Emerson Launch, where students have been testing out Emerson Em – seeing if it recognizes different accents and voices, evaluating its answers, Gupta sees Emerson’s oratory history coming full circle with voice technology.

Gupta recently learned that Emerson started out 138 years ago as a school of oratory, where students learned how to affect people and effect change — using their voice.

“I think it would be cool to return to those roots,” Gupta said. “I can definitely see us being a pioneer in voice leadership and innovation.”

Erin Clossey contributed to this story. 


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