Stanford EE Computer Systems Colloquium

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Building the Smartest and Open Virtual Assistant to Protect Privacy

Monica Lam
Computer Science
Stanford University

About the talk:

Virtual assistants, providing a voice interface to web services and IoTs, can potentially develop into monopolistic platforms that threaten consumer privacy and open competition. This talk presents Almond as an open-source alternative.

We introduce a more cost-effective and robust methodology and tool set for building virtual assistants. We use an end-to-end neural model that translates natural language to directly executable code in our new virtual assistant programming language, called ThingTalk. As annotating real data training is prohibitively expensive, we train our neural network with mostly data synthesized with our Genie data engineering tool. Genie can automatically generate a dialogue agent from a database in given domains. In addition, it is designed to be extensible: developers can supply new domain schemas and APIs, domain-independent sentence templates and dialogue state machines in any language, as well as new ThingTalk constructs. Using this methodology, Almond has been shown to answer complex questions more accurately than existing commercial assistants in the domain of restaurant reservations.

To protect privacy, our Almond virtual assistant prototype has a federated design that lets users own their data and share their digital assets with full control. Almond has been integrated into Home Assistant, an open-source local gateway that can connect to hundreds of different IoT devices. By making all the tools, neural models, training data open-source, we wish to support open-world collaboration to create the smartest and open virtual assistant. Almond and more information are available on

This research is supported by the NSF under grant No. 1900638.


This lecture will be available on YouTube.

About the Speaker:

[speaker photo] Dr. Monica Lam has been a Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University since 1988, and is the Faculty Director of the Stanford Open Virtual Assistant Laboratory (OVAL). She leads the Almond open virtual assistant project, which protects privacy and data ownership through decentralized systems that can be programmed with natural language.

Prof. Lam is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and an ACM Fellow. She has won numerous best paper awards, and has published over 150 papers on compilers, computer architecture, operating systems, high-performance computing, databases, security, and HCI. She is an author of the "Dragon Book", the definitive text on compiler technology. She received a B.Sc. from University of British Columbia (1980) and a Ph.D. from Carnegie Mellon University (1987).