Amazon expands Alexa Fund, growing tech investment in higher ed research
- Amazon announced Tuesday that it is expanding its Amazon Alexa Fellowship to 18 colleges during the 2018-19 academic year from four last year.
- The two-pronged fellowship supports faculty and graduate student research in voice technology. The Alexa Graduate Student fellowship includes tuition funding, mentoring and Alexa devices to support related coursework. The faculty-oriented Alexa Innovation Fellowship aims to position awardees as voice interface experts and provides funding and devices for student startups.
- Participating colleges include public and private institutions in four countries, with the majority in the U.S. Among them are Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Washington and Texas A&M University.
The private sector has long been a willing source of research dollars for colleges and universities. And as higher ed grapples with funding woes in tandem with the emergence of new forms of technology requiring considerable capital investment, that trend is expected to continue.
Of particular interest of late is artificial intelligence (AI), which includes voice technology. In September 2017, MIT teamed up with IBM in a 10-year, $240 million AI research effort supporting researchers from the institution and the company. The resulting MIT-IBM Watson AI Lab has stated goals of enhancing the impact of AI in a variety of industries.
More recently, IBM partnered with Columbia University to develop blockchain technology through the Columbia-IBM Center for Blockchain and Data Transparency.
Today, research partnerships with high-tech private-sector companies are lauded. But they hearken back to a less-favorable history of private support for academic research where dollars were exchanged for favorable outcomes and funding sources were often not disclosed. The Atlantic notes that there are still no consistent standards governing the relationships between academics and their private-sector sponsors, leaving disclosure practices up to institutions or even individual professors.
And tech giants aren't exempt. Last June, Google came under fire for funding academic research on topics supporting its policy and business agendas, in many cases without it being noted that the tech company provided the funds.
As colleges struggle with declining tuition and other revenues, private funding for technology innovation may be all the more important. Administrators seeking to grow their programs and draw students with the opportunity to work with tech leaders should be aware of the expectations of their new funders.
After all, as Amazon writes in its announcement of the Alexa Fund expansion, a key driver for the program is its “belief in the potential these students have to invent the next big thing."