AI Weekly: What Andy Jassy’s ascension to CEO means for Amazon’s AI initiatives

This week, Jeff Bezos announced that he’ll step down as CEO at Amazon and transition to an executive chair role during the third quarter of this year. Amazon Web Services (AWS) CEO Andy Jassy will take his place, heading up a company currently valued at around $1.6 trillion.

Jassy, who joined Amazon in 1997 and has led AWS since its inception in 2003, believes Amazon’s decision to double down on AI early differentiated it from the competition. In May 2020, Gartner ranked AWS the industry leader in terms of vision and ability to execute on AI developer services. Beyond AWS, product recommendations on Amazon are powered by AI, as well as Alexa, Prime Air, Amazon Go, and the pick paths used in distribution centers to find products and fulfill orders.

So how might Jassy’s elevation to CEO impact Amazon’s AI initiatives? Interviews in recent years suggest Jassy is enthusiastic about cloud services tailored to the needs of machine learning practitioners, particularly for large enterprise applications. Controversially, Jassy has also said customers, not Amazon itself, are responsible for curbing their usage of potentially problematic AI technologies like facial recognition.

In a conversation with Silicon Angle in December, Jassy said he expects the majority of applications to be infused with AI in the next five to 10 years. While he endorses the idea of catering to expert machine learning practitioners who know how to train, tune, and deploy AI models, he asserts that AWS, more than rivals like Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure, has aimed to “democratize” data science by lowering the barriers to entry.

“There just aren’t that many expert machine learning practitioners. And so it never gets extensive in most enterprises if you don’t make it easier for everyday developers and data scientists to use machine learning,” Jassy told Silicon Angle. He stressed the importance of “top-layer” AI services that transcribe audio, translate text, and more via APIs, without requiring customers to develop custom models. But he said the most important thing Amazon has done to make AI more accessible is building fully managed services.

“Enterprises have so much data that they want to use predictive algorithms to get value added,” Jassy said during a keynote at the Goldman Sachs Technology and Internet Conference in San Francisco last February.

SageMaker is one example of these fully managed services. Launched in 2016, it’s designed to let developers build, test, and maintain AI models from a single dashboard. Amazon says SageMaker, which gained nine new capabilities in December — following the launch of SageMaker Studio, an integrated development environment for machine learning — now has tens of thousands of customers.

It’s a safe bet that investments in services akin and complementary to SageMaker will accelerate with Jassy at the helm. So too, most likely, will the buildout of backend tools Amazon uses to solve challenges like call analytics.

“As Clay Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, said … people hire products and services to do a job. They don’t really care what you do under the covers, but they’re hiring a product to do a job,” Jassy told Silicon Angle. “[Some people] don’t actually want to hire machine learning [experts]. They want to have an easier way to get automatic call analytics on all of their calls … And what we’re finding is that increasingly we’re using machine learning as the source to get those jobs done, but without people necessarily knowing that that’s what we’re doing behind the scenes.”

This work might be of a controversial nature. In an interview at Recode’s 2019 Code Conference, Jassy defended the company’s facial recognition service, Rekognition, while calling for the federal government to introduce national guidelines. (In September 2019, Recode reported that Amazon was writing its own facial recognition laws to pitch to lawmakers.) “Just because tech could be misused doesn’t mean we should ban it and condemn it,” he said, adding that Amazon would provide its facial recognition tech to governments, excepting those that violate the law or infringe on civil liberties.

Last year, Amazon declared a halt on the sale of facial recognition to police departments for 12 months but did not necessarily extend that restriction to federal law enforcement agencies. Prior to the moratorium, the company reportedly attempted to sell its facial recognition tech to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and police in Orlando, Florida and other cities have trialed it.

A number of academics have called Jassy’s stance on facial recognition technology, which runs counter to that of many Amazon shareholders, problematic at best. Anima Anandkumar, the principal scientist for artificial intelligence at Amazon, told PBS Frontline that facial recognition isn’t “battle-tested” to work in the types of challenging conditions where law enforcement might use it (e.g., with low-light, grainy, or low-quality images). And dating back to 2018, AI researchers Joy Buolamwini, Timnit Gebru, and Deborah Raji have found that facial recognition software from companies like Amazon work best for white men and worst for women with dark skin. Amazon has publicly dismissed their coauthored work, the Gender Shades project.

Given this history, it seems unlikely that Jassy will extend the moratorium on facial recognition sales when it expires in July. He’s also unlikely to curtail the law enforcement relationships that Ring, Amazon’s smart home division, has fostered since its acquisition by Amazon in 2018. Ring has reportedly partnered with over 2,000 police and fire departments across the U.S. dating back to 2015, when Ring let the Los Angeles Police Department test how front-door footage might reduce property crimes.

Advocacy groups like Fight for the Future and the Electronic Frontier Foundation have accused Ring of using its cameras and Neighbors app (which delivers safety alerts) to build a private surveillance network via these partnerships. The Electronic Frontier Foundation in particular has singled Ring out for marketing strategies that foster fear and promote a sale-spurring “vicious cycle,” and for “[facilitating] reporting of so-called ‘suspicious’ behavior that really amounts to racial profiling.”

“We don’t have a large number of police departments that are using our facial recognition technology, and as I said, we’ve never received any complaints of misuse. Let’s see if somehow they abuse the technology — they haven’t done that,” Jassy told PBS Frontline in a 2020 interview. “And to assume they’re going to do that and therefore you shouldn’t allow them to have access to the most sophisticated technology out there doesn’t feel like the right balance to me.”

For AI coverage, send news tips to Khari Johnson and Kyle Wiggers — and be sure to subscribe to the AI Weekly newsletter and bookmark The Machine.

Thanks for reading,

Kyle Wiggers

AI Staff Writer


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