The champion team: Shanghai Jiaotong University’s “Little Jiaotong” team.

On August 15, the sixth annual Microsoft Beauty of Programming Challenge — a programming competition for college students in Asia — came to a close. This year’s theme focused on artificial intelligence question and answer (Q&A) projects. The challenge asked each team to create a unique Q&A bot for their college, employing Microsoft Bot Framework and Microsoft Cognitive Services technologies.

Some 1,165 teams, representing 168 colleges, entered the competition. By winning a series of preliminary contests, eight teams, comprising 28 students, entered the final, representing Northeastern University, Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Peking University, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications (BUPT), Shanghai Jiaotong University, Wuhan University and Sun Yat-Sen University. Dr. Ming Zhou, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research Asia, told event winners, “Through the Beauty of Programming experience, you have made the first step in the field of natural language understanding.”

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The winner of this year’s final is a team from Shanghai Jiaotong University, called Little Jiaotong.

Their bot provides visitors and students with services such as campus information and assistance with studying and life issues. The team members uses the Bing Search API, Azure Cosmos DB, LUIS and ten other Microsoft technologies. The Little Jiaotong team also used the voice service of Microsoft Cognitive Services to help the robot dialog naturally with audience members.

The second prize winner was the Dora Dream team from BUPT. They created Little Dora, an intelligent campus service bot, using information retrieval and machine learning technology. Based on the Microsoft Bot Framework, LUIS and BUPT BBS data, Little Dora supports three input modes, and features four functions: campus assistant, internship recruitment, find a friend and lost and found. In the final show, the Dora Dream team demonstrated Little Dora, using pictures, face recognition and image matching to help users find a friend.

Demo session encourages audience interaction
In addition to the winners of the contest, the Beauty of Programming event provided a series of additional demonstration projects, including an intelligent bot that can make jokes based on HoloLens, from team VMA from Shenzhen Meisha College which team members three high school students.

Another team from BUPT created a bot that can review a user’s fitness, diet, sleep and study schedule, along with other factors, to create a personal profile that can help students study more efficiently.

Said Xin Ma, director of academic cooperation at Microsoft Research Asia, “In a time of fast technology product iteration, good user experience is key. We set up the demo session to let the audience join the judges in reviewing contest submissions, providing feedback so that the teams can learn in real time what users care about.”

Each team leader pictured with their instructor/teacher.

Mentorship key to team success
Microsoft Research Asia provides mentors to each final team, helping them break through development bottlenecks and come up with new approaches to technical challenges.

The winner of the contest’s Ada award was Lulu Wu from Sun Yat-Sen University. She recounted a story of working on a project very late at night. When she absentmindedly texted her mentor in the wee hours of the night, she was surprised and honored by her mentor’s rapid response.

Winning bots are being put to use
Some of the content entrants’ work is ready for real-world use. For example, BUPT’s Dora Dream team has a working bot in use at its university. Plans are in place to put Shanghai Jiaotong University’s bot into action through its Microsoft Club’s WeChat account.

This contest achieved several goals: It helped college-level programmers get real-world experience, and it provided Microsoft with the opportunity to mentor and support programming talent. The Beauty of Programming 2017 event was, indeed, a thing of beauty.