Although Amazon has been developing voice assistant Alexa for years and has invested in cloud computing and machine learning, the tech giant has been noticeably absent from the increasingly intense artificial intelligence race in Silicon Valley. However, at a recent meeting of all employees in its cloud computing division, the company’s executives reassured employees that they are definitely not being left behind.
At the March meeting, Swami Sivasubramanian, Amazon’s vice president of database, analytics and machine learning operations, said, “We’ve made a lot of efforts in the AI space. We still have a lot to do, and I’m excited to share some of our plans for the future.”
The so-called generative artificial intelligence (AIGC) quickly rose to prominence last November with the release of the breakout chatbot ChatGPT, the biggest winner of which was AI research startup OpenAI. then, tech giants, Google and Microsoft (which invested more than $10 billion in OpenAI) scrambled to catch up, launching chatbot products Bard and Bing, respectively, shortly thereafter.
Amazon is absent from this new track, despite running a huge cloud computing business with the largest workforce and a market cap of more than $1 trillion.
AWS, Amazon’s cloud computing division, announced partnerships with artificial intelligence companies such as Stability AI and Hugging Face, which will allow other companies to use Amazon’s infrastructure to build artificial intelligence products. Amazon also uses machine learning in many of its business units, including Alexa and in search on Amazon.com, but its failure to launch innovative consumer-facing AI has led many to speculate that the company is falling behind.
Amazon appeared to be absent from the recent Cerebral Valley AI conference, where many venture capitalists and founders of artificial intelligence companies gathered. Some attendees said the tech giant appears to be lagging behind its peers in the AI race.
However, at AWS’s recent plenary session, executives seemed to start refuting that view. Sivasubramanya said chatbots are just “one example of this type of model application. He said Amazon’s more than 100,000 machine-learning customers have expressed interest in using the company’s technology to improve personalization, search engine results and even automate call centers.
Sivasubramanian added, “If you look at our track record of innovation in machine learning, you’ll see that we’re really paving the way for mainstream enterprise and customer adoption of machine learning. We’re excited to do the same thing in this space because it’s growing rapidly, but we’re going to do it in our own way at Amazon. We will listen to our customers and identify the areas where they really need help and how they can be successful in that area.”
Amazon did not comment on this. But apparently, not all employees were convinced. One AWS employee commented on the company executive’s statement, saying that Amazon “can’t even yet get users to use any AWS service the way they use ChatGPT.”
Another employee seemed unhappy with the company’s response and decided to ask ChatGPT how Amazon could compete in the artificial intelligence space. The employee then posted the response from the chatbot, which included a fictional Amazon technology that confused many of his colleagues.
The discussion about AIGC technology and how it will reshape the arts, work and life as we know it has recently turned Silicon Valley upside down. But the early leaders of this conversation have always been smaller startups whose tools have become very popular, such as Midjourney’s image generator and OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Dall-E.
However, their success has raised questions about whether tech giants are lagging behind in terms of innovation. While companies like Microsoft, Google and Meta are scrambling to catch up, they are also facing concerns about security as users flock to cutting-edge technologies that behave unpredictably.
This comes at a time when big tech companies were taking a cautious approach to artificial intelligence, and then ChatGPT suddenly exploded. This comes at a time when economic concerns are forcing these large companies to cut spending and, in some cases, they’ve even just fired the teams that ensure AI security.
Amazon CEO Andy Jassy confirmed in February that the company has its own AIGC strategy. He said, “Large, highly technical companies like ours have been working on these very large AI models themselves for a long time.”
Amazon tends to favor a pragmatic strategy. AWS already sells a variety of tools that leverage artificial intelligence, such as AWS Polly, which automatically converts written text into “more natural-sounding human language,” and Amazon Panorama, which interprets what the camera is saying. “The latter can interpret what the camera sees and automatically alert people to problems, such as damaged products on a conveyor belt.
Amazon has also invested heavily in upgrading its voice assistant Alexa, but voice-activated chat technology like Alexa and Siri is very different from AIGC, which learns and adapts, rather than just answering questions with pre-determined answers. Amazon had hoped that customers would eventually be able to use Alexa to shop and order products without having to pick up a phone or computer. However, while smart speakers are popular, voice assistants have not caught on.
As Amazon downsizes and tries to refocus due to economic concerns, it fired thousands of employees, including hundreds of Alexa employees. But AWS CEO Adam Selipsky, who took the stage at the same time as Sivasubramanian at the all-staff meeting in March, reiterated that when it comes to artificial intelligence, “there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done across Amazon.”
Selipsky added that Amazon is working on “some very exciting projects and products” and “when they come to market in due course, I think it will be really cool.