Jeff Bezos might be the world’s biggest Star Trek fan. At one point, the Amazon founder and CEO wanted to call his e-commerce platform makeitso.com, in reference to Captain Jean-Luc Picard’s catchphrase. In 2016, after years of begging Paramount Pictures, Bezos made a cameo as an alien Starfleet official in Star Trek Beyond. So, when Amazon set out to build the AI assistant Alexa, Bezos envisioned finally realising the Star Trek computer – a benign, omniscient assistant, available everywhere.
“We really did think of it as the Star Trek computer, where it was ambient and you could simply say: ‘Computer, beam me up,'” says Mike George, Amazon’s vice president of Echo, Alexa and Appstore. Clad in a black v-neck jumper and jeans, the 20-year Amazon veteran has a booming laugh and a vague resemblance to both Bezos and Picard. George bounds into the office, all unwavering eye contact, full-body laughs and wrist-crunching high fives, his preferred form of greeting.
I meet him, and most of the Alexa executive team, on an upper floor of Amazon’s skyscraper, Day 1, in the Denny Triangle in downtown Seattle. From here, on a blue-sky morning, the Space Needle is dwarfed by the snow-capped mountains beyond. Both seem like inconsequential theatrical set pieces to the Amazon empire below. The 30 buildings that make up the company’s base are visible out towards Lake Union. More than 150 metres below is a hole in the ground where the firm is erecting more buildings. Two 30-metre-tall biospheres under construction between the skyscrapers will house 300 plant species and provide another workspace for Amazonians. The company has permits to create 9.2 million square metres of office space, enough to double its workforce. The campus is a microcosm of Amazon’s world: always looking forward, growing so fast it’s hard to keep up.
In April 2017, Amazon’s stock-market capitalisation reached $439.8 billion (£342.2bn). It is the world’s fourth-largest company, behind Apple, Alphabet and Microsoft. Bezos’ online store has come a long way from just selling books. Amazon Prime – the annual membership that includes, among other things, speedy delivery – has millions of customers in the UK and tens of millions in the US (Amazon declined to give us precise numbers for this feature). Amazon Web Services (AWS), its cloud-computing platform, underpins much of the internet, including Netflix and Spotify, and is itself a business with a $12 billion annual turnover. In February, Amazon Studios won its first three Oscars. Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar shops in the US, is leasing a fleet of 40 cargo planes and has launched a publishing arm. Mechanical Turk, its online marketplace, has hundreds of thousands of regular contributors. The company is testing 30-minute Prime Air drone deliveries in Cambridge, UK, where it plans to hire 400 additional staff for its machine-learning research and development centre. In June, it bought supermarket chain Whole Foods, with its 400-plus retail sites, for $13.7 billion.
AI has long been at the core of Amazon’s business. “A lot of the value we’re getting from machine learning is actually happening beneath the surface,” Bezos said at the Internet Association’s annual gala in May. “It is things such as improved search results, improved product recommendations, improved forecasting for inventory management and hundreds of other things.”
With the introduction of Alexa in November 2014, Amazon has entered what Bezos calls AI’s “golden age”. Alexa is the public face of Amazon’s AI efforts; the facilitator that will help customers navigate – and consume – Amazon’s empire. It is an empire that began selling books, and now offers its own music, films and hardware, along with your daily essentials and groceries. Amazon has grown to a behemoth – but before it was held back by the rigid interface of the web. By opening the platform to third-party developers and brands, Amazon wants to introduce Alexa into every area of your life: your home, car, hospital, workplace. The everything store is about to be everywhere.
Read more at Wired.