Tech Talk: Why Amazon Nabbed An eBay AI Exec

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In the field of e-commerce, eBay and Amazon have long been thought of in the same way as Nintendo and Sega, or McDonald's and Burger King. While eBay's artificial intelligence chops aren't shown off as openly as Amazon's and mostly end up under the hood, this is another area where the two companies are competing. AI has not been a part of either company's portfolio for all that long, of course; the right technology to start putting it into everyday products only came about recently. Thus, when eBay began forming their cognitive computing group back in 2013, they needed somebody who not only knew AI in and out, but would be able to form and lead a team to analyze AI technology, visualize possible products and other applications, and of course, have the programming chops to materialize a meaningful AI system. That man wound up being Hassan Sawaf, an entrepreneur with multiple business ventures and over 20 years of research into natural language and machine learning under his belt.

On Friday, after 3 years of leading eBay's AI efforts, Sawaf's LinkedIn page reflected a drastic change; now working for Amazon, he was to be in charge of user experience and search capabilities, among other things, as Amazon's new AI director. While eBay made a statement essentially saying that they will survive without him, Amazon was quiet on the matter. While this would otherwise just be another routine poaching of a high-ranking employee from a rival in the same field, the contents of Sawaf's LinkedIn page say that something bigger is going on. That something bigger is the expansion of Amazon's A9 Labs.

The A9 labs have been around since 2003, as an arm of sorts of Amazon. When they started out, they used basic AI solutions to optimize Amazon's search technology. From there, they built out into other industries and began accepting a wide stable of clients. These days, their focus is still on their parent company, but their focus is shifting. Deep learning and machine learning are becoming the order of the day at A9 Labs, as they are just about everywhere. According to Sawaf's LinkedIn, the division is hiring. Specifically, they are looking for people who can apply machine learning and deep learning skills in "Natural Language Understanding, Dialog Processing, Machine Translation, Speech Recognition, Search Ranking, Information Extraction and Computer Vision". All of those sound a lot like things that could help in the development of Alexa.

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Amazon's AI-based personal assistant solution does technically qualify as a search product, since it intelligently connects you with local search and Amazon's own product portfolio. With Alexa reportedly soon to find itself on a host of new platforms, Sawaf seems like just the right person to lead the charge in development and porting of the AI solution. He not only has 20 years of related experience under his belt, but boasts a wide range of relevant patents. Sawaf's new role in leading efforts to optimize the user experience for search on Amazon sounds like optimization and development of Alexa could certainly fall under that job description, and the talents that he's looking for in new blood seem to fit the bill as well. It is quite possible that we will be seeing Alexa pick up new capabilities and refine its natural language processing as it begins to make its way to other platforms. While others in the field like Google are quite formidable, Sawaf can certainly hold his own when it comes to AI programming, and it looks as though he will be put in charge of a team of people who can all say the same. If all of this does indeed point to work on Alexa, with the release of Google Home on the horizon, the virtual assistant war could seriously heat up in the very near future.