Arkady Volozh, Yandex: ''When we started Alice, we thought it was just another experiment, demo...''

Yandex has taught artificial intelligence to order a pizza and to play music and films using voice

Arkady Volozh, Yandex: ''When we started Alice, we thought it was just another experiment, demo...'' Photo: Maria Gorozhaninova

At Yet another conference 2018 in Moscow, Yandex presented its first smart speaker and a new service — both developments has Alice hidden. Now she can not only help to find information and chat with a person, but also order a pizza, enrol in courses in foreign languages and play films and music, the name of which is not even necessary to remember — the smart system will find everything by itself. Realnoe Vremya correspondent at the invitation of Yandex attended the company's conference and was one of the first to learn about new developments.

''Six months ago we saw that we held a miracle in our hands''

The main topic of the Yandex conference, Yet another conference 2018, was the possibilities of artificial intelligence, with which the new developments of the company are connected one way or another. The co-founder and head of Yandex, Arkady Volozh, on the stage of the several thousand strong Moscow stadium was more like a superstar or an American business coach who gathered people for his speech. But he spoke a little, speaking rather as a moderator and alternately giving the floor to his employees.

Bringing the conversation to the presentation of the company's developments, he began to tell about how each progressive innovation was first perceived as a miracle, but later became commonplace. Cellphones, search engines, online taxi, navigation systems — initially, he said, all these developments caused a lot of criticism, but later people even stopped thinking about their use — it has become commonplace.

The main topic of the Yandex conference, Yet another conference 2018, was the possibilities of artificial intelligence

After several minutes, Volozh was joined by the voice assistant Alice.

''When we started it, about two years ago, we thought that it was another experiment, some demo, artificial intelligence. We would show how it worked with texts, how well it coped with the understanding of simple cases. Some time passed, and six months ago we saw that we had a miracle in our hands. Engineers immediately understood it — it works as nobody expected from it,'' the head of the company admitted. Then he stated: a miracle became possible.

Volozh invited the director of Yandex technologies, Mikhail Parakhin, to tell what is inside of Alice.

The company's top manager started with technologies that are responsible for voice recognition. It is possible due to SpeechKit, thanks to it in the middle of last year Alice surpassed human being and began to recognize obscure words. For example, the speech of young children. This has become possible due to that the developers of voice assistant collected one billion ready-made messages — it's three years of continuous sound. Turing technology is responsible for the formation of the response. It analyzes several parameters, taking into account the previous history of communication with the person and all available information about him or her. The answer is pronounced with the help of Text to Speech technology — not immediately, but the developers came from an emotionless, robotic voice to a living, human one. First, the voice of Alice was collected from words, then from more than a million phonemes. But the company was dissatisfied with the result, so it began to collect from the phonemes with the subsequent passage of the neural network through them.

First, the voice of Alice was collected from words, then from more than a million phonemes. But the company was dissatisfied with the result, so it began to collect from the phonemes with the subsequent passage of the neural network through them

Alice can order a pizza

Then Yandex thought how to make Alice useful. And they did. Director of artificial intelligence Mikhail Bilenko presented a new platform of the company — Yandex.Dialogues, which has become available for download. In the new platform, one can connect a bot that becomes an analogue of the voice assistant Alice.

''All people who use Alice can talk to you. Sometimes there are requests that cannot be answered by the bot. And then the operator is needed. Through Yandex.Dialogues one can connect both operators and bots. This is the first hybrid skills platform,'' Bilenko said.

Now the platform contains several thousand skills. With the help of voice commands, one can order a pizza, study foreign languages and even agree on a sports training. The system constantly learns and remembers the history of communication with a person, so later, for example, it will first offer the pizza, which is usually ordered by a person. Any company can be an operator — the bot itself contacts them and, having learned the preferences of its owner, orders these services for him or switches them to the necessary site. Now payment requires confirmation and is made using bank cards, the data of which are stored in the systems. But in the future, they plan to facilitate the procedure. Another news of Yandex was announced by the head of Sony Mobile Russia, Shinichi Tanaka. He said that Alice was integrated into their headphones. This option will be available around the world after installing the application Yandex. The voice assistant will help you to navigate while driving, writing messages or with playing your favourite music. However, since the system only speaks Russian, foreigners will not be able to use it.

Yandex presents its first hardware

Thus, now, in addition to smartphones and cars, Alice also lives in headphones. However, Arkady Volozh stated: this is not enough for them. As a result of that ''not enough'' it was born another development, which caused, perhaps, the greatest interest at the conference.

''Yandex is a software company. Therefore, with a great thrill I am presenting the first ''piece of iron'' made in Yandex,'' Volozh presented the multimedia platform with built-in Alice called Yandex.Station.

Konstantin Kruglov said that the smart system is connected to Yandex.Music, which includes more than 35 million songs

General designer of the station Konstantin Kruglov said that the smart system is connected to Yandex.Music, which includes more than 35 million songs. It is switched on with the help of voice — Alice can be asked to make it louder, quieter, put on pause or make a playlist to your mood. The technology recognizes human voice even when music is loud. By the way, the company does not claim the monopoly of using its development — Yandex assures that they are open to discussion and partnership. This station can also be connected to the Dialogues platform to order services via the smart speaker. For now, each purchase will need to be confirmed through the app — station's companion. In the future, it is planned to introduce a voice recognition function in the development so that children cannot make various purchases without the knowledge of parents.

Another function of the speaker is its connection to the TV without additional devices — the system does not need a remote control as it is controlled by voice. Yandex.Station is connected with all the largest online cinemas, and it is not even needed the exact name of a film to playback it – it will find the film itself by a rough description. Or you can ask to playback a horror or comedy — the smart system will choose something suitable. The volume of the sound is also regulated by voice, and in the process Alice makes jokes and talk to the person. In addition, the station settings have three modes of operation, provided specifically for children — family, moderate and free. Thus, both audio and video will be filtered depending on the settings.

The design of the speaker was developed by a California studio, and they are produced in the Chinese city of Shenzhen. It is not clear when Yandex.Station will be available to users, but the company made it clear that this will happen in the near future — in early summer.

''We never share data with anyone''

The developers of the speaker promise that it will not ''spy on'' people. Such an issue is very relevant because only recently it has become known that the smart speaker of Amazon recorded the conversation of a family couple and sent it itself to the person from the contact list.

Not without pride, Parakhin reminded that their company does everything possible to save personal data.

''Yandex is famous for this — as you know, we never share data with anyone. Not with our business partners, not with our colleagues. If there is a court decision – probably, then we share. In other cases, we never give data users never to anyone,'' the speaker assured journalists and even said that everywhere in the office they have posters with the reminder: personal data must be protected!

By Maria Gorozhaninova. Photo by the author