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In July, Amazon discovered one of the student-designed bots had been hit by a hacker in China, people familiar with the incident said.

This compromised a digital key that could have unlocked transcripts of the bot’s conversations, stripped of users’ names.

Alexa relies on machine learning, the most popular form of AI, to work.

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For instance, the UC Davis bot recognizes the difference between a user expressing admiration (“that’s cool”) and a user expressing gratitude (“thank you”).

The next challenge for social bots is figuring out how to respond appropriately to their human chat buddies.

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Millions of users of Amazon’s Echo speakers have grown accustomed to the soothing strains of Alexa, the human-sounding virtual assistant that can tell them the weather, order takeout and handle other basic tasks in response to a voice command.

So a customer was shocked last year when Alexa blurted out: “Kill your foster parents.” Alexa has also chatted with users about sex acts. And this summer, a hack Amazon traced back to China may have exposed some customers’ data, according to five people familiar with the events. The episodes, previously unreported, arise from Inc’s strategy to make Alexa a better communicator.

The project has been important to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who signed off on using the company’s customers as guinea pigs, one of the people said.

Amazon has been willing to accept the risk of public blunders to stress-test the technology in real life and move Alexa faster up the learning curve, the person said. The university teams are helping Alexa have a wider range of conversations.

For the most part, teams programmed their bots to search the internet for material.

They could retrieve news articles found in The Washington Post, the newspaper that Bezos privately owns, through a licensing deal that gave them access.

Amazon customers have also given the bots better ratings this year than last, the company said.

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