India plays an important role in hunt for talent in digital age: Amazon CTO

Werner Vogels, Vice-president & chief technology officer, Amazon.com
Werner Vogels, vice-president and chief technology officer of Amazon.com, used to travel 300 days a year, and had planned to spend time in Africa, the Middle East and India. He got stuck in Amsterdam after the pandemic, and has been working from an apartment for the past eight months, trying to reinvent the process of interacting with customers and find solutions to address the challenges posed by Covid-19. In an interview with Peerzada Abrar, Vogels says India would play a key role in Amazon’s technology bets. Edited excerpts:


How do you see the Covid-19 pandemic shaping our world and what is the role of technology to address the challenges posed by it?

 
Technology has changed almost every aspect of our lives — the way we interact, study, consume entertainment. And there's a clear shift towards more digital services. I think both governments as well as small and medium businesses are increasingly starting to make use of advanced digital technologies to meet their customers. They do this by acquiring or making use of software-as-a-service. For example, if I look at how the hospitality industry is shaping up, one can imagine that younger businesses like the Airbnbs of this world have seen a tremendous drop in business, and the same goes for the large hotel chains. But both of those have technology at their fingertips because they have made those investments and continue to see this as an opportunity to innovate. But small and medium businesses are tremendously under pressure. They are making use of this as an opportunity to shift and start making use of software-as-a-service. An Indian company, Hotelogix, is a great example of that. It provides small, medium and boutique hotels with the same software that the large hotel chains have.

Then there are the problems directly related to Covid-19 like vaccine delivery or keeping people safe. Are you working on any such problems?

 
We are working with a whole range of companies (like) Moderna, one of the first to announce great results on their vaccine. We've helped the World Health Organization build a data lake, where all researchers can start sharing data. We work with many other world organisations to help them acquire all CT scans and X-rays of the lungs of infected patients. We are working with the National Health Service in the UK to make use of machine learning and the data that they have for the best capacity planning. We were fortunate because we had already created an AWS Disaster Response Team many years ago, for situations like earthquakes and typhoons. We were well equipped to be able to immediately reach out to our customers, who were affected by the pandemic.

What are the technology bets that Amazon is making for the next decade?

 
The physical, analog, and digital world are merging in a way that they are steadily becoming seamless. The days where the cloud was just a group of centralised data centres with four or five of these regions around the world are now disappearing. The cloud is actually running much closer to you than it used to. It may be on your phone. It may run on the satellites that are taking the images. We’re dropping devices with cloud computing technology in Antarctica for researchers. Especially in the IoT (Internet of Things) world, the cloud is no longer something that sits in a centralised place in the middle, but it's pushed out to the edges. With the launch of AWS Ground Station, there's a tremendous rise in research and making use of micro-satellites. Many research institutions or young businesses cannot afford to build their own ground stations. Now in typical AWS style, you can just rent them anytime and only pay for the time that you've used it. Also, there are a number of things, including quantum computing, where we're still much more in an exploratory phase. We launched Amazon Braket last year, allowing companies to start experimenting with quantum computing.

What role do you see India playing in your technology bets come alive?

 
I think the education system in India delivers tremendous engineers and innovators. There is a great entrepreneurial spirit as well. We have a wide range of development centres in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Mumbai. We bring these centres to where the talent is. It is the most crucial resource these days. I think the hunt for talent is one of the biggest challenges of this digital age, and India plays an important role in that. This is not just because there are great engineers, but you also have great innovators, and that has worked really well for us. Plus, we have always had a great interaction with Indian customers. There is a company (AWS customer) from Bengaluru called Zwende. It has created a complete platform to bring old-style Indian arts onto modern goods like handbags.

With Covid-19 accelerating the shift towards e-commerce, what are the problems you are addressing using technologies such as drones or robotics?

 
We have spent billions of dollars on making sure that our workers in our warehouses are safe. We created technologies, which also have made it to our customers. One of them is called “Distance Assistant”. We put these screens or cameras everywhere, where you would get a red bounding box around you if you would come too close to other people. For interacting with our customers, we have developed a small robot called “Amazon Scout” that can drive over paths to deliver goods to people at their homes. There is no need for human-to-human interaction. In drone delivery, we are very far ahead with the technology itself, but I think there's still a lot of political and regulatory hurdles. But I'm confident that we will continue down that path.

How do you see the rise of AI and technologies such as bioengineering and their impact on humans?

 
We've seen during the pandemic that many of the life sciences or pharmaceutical companies have moved towards making use of machine learning and AI. Because the data sets are getting larger, it is no longer something where a single engineer can get the answers he or she wants. It's all about discovery, whether that is to support vaccine development or other areas in health care. The word AI for many people is some sort of scary science fiction movie. We've been working very closely with the health care community. They don't see AI or machine learning as something that will replace them. It augments their abilities. AI service (Amazon Textract) helps medical documents to get transcribed into digital form because the majority of them are still on paper. Radiologists can compare two digital images at a microscopic level, using machine learning. In industrial settings, sensors become data-generating devices, and we can actually predict when problems will happen and intervene.

But there are concerns related to the rise of AI, such as people losing jobs or biases. Your comments?

 
Bias has to do with the inputs you get. What we've been building is more tools and techniques, such that our customers can experiment with the sort of changing their input data, or looking at what the impact of the change of the input data is to the eventual model that is being generated. I think that will continue to become important as we start to realise the impact of what imperfect data has on the output of it. It is also down to humans and society to really figure out what is the appropriate use of this technology. For example, if you would make use of your hiring data over the past 20 years and you use it as an input data, you would find similar potential engineers. Diversity in that particular case is something that you may want to achieve. But it isn’t in the dataset that you already have. To change the way we operate as a society is something humans have to decide. I don't think technology can do that for us. We can work with regulators or governments to facilitate the appropriate use of technology.

You had said that Amazon would go out of business if it stops innovating. What made you say that?

 
That comment was mostly about retail. I think retail is definitely an area, where if we stop innovating, we will be out of business in 10-15 years. There will always be someone else selling better shoes or diapers. And in all these different areas, there's an opportunity to innovate. Enterprises need to become as innovative as young businesses are really a threat to their existence. Digital systems have changed the way people are interacting with companies. In these times, people are uncertain about their jobs, finances or health, you need to interact differently with your customers. I think enterprises need to figure out that they need to start moving as fast as these young businesses. For Amazon, that’s the case as well.



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