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Amazon looks to dominate artificial intelligence with university donation

October 7, 2016


A mockup of the proposed building Amazon is helping to build on University of Washington’s campus

Seattle-based online retailer Amazon has gifted nearby University of Washington a $10 million sum, serving the hybrid purposes of both investment in AI and commerce technologies as well as donation.

The donation will go towards adding a second Computer Science and Engineering building on the University of Washington campus. Amazon’s patronage will also establish a pipeline of talent from University of Washington into their own brand, one that needs young talent in order to successfully complete a shift in their commerce from mobile to artificial intelligence.

“Having a resource of high tech grads close to home, as University of Washington is, makes a lot of sense for Amazon,” said Marci Troutman, founder and CEO of SiteMinis.

“Internships, specified curriculum, relationship building are all positive outcomes for the college, students and Amazon. A.I. research is now a highly competitive environment that requires those companies in the game to have a plan to get the best and brightest, and to get the I.P. for key discoveries.”

A strategic contribution
Amazon has been a long-time supporter of University of Washington’s Computer Science and Engineering program.

The retailer launched the Amazon Catalyst program, a series of grants aimed at supporting significant, globally impactful projects, with University of Washington as its pilot.

In 2012 it established two $1 million endowed professorships in Computer Science and Engineering at University of Washington to assist in advancements in machine learning, an endeavor that is directly within the retailer’s interest.

Given their significant investment in artificial intelligence and machine learning, Amazon will need a plethora of young talent well-versed in the areas, with no better place to look for talent than at home.

It is no coincidence that Amazon’s massive donation coincides with an equally massive hiring spree for their Alexa Group, which focuses on the advancement and commercial application of artificial intelligence through the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot.

The Amazon Echo, a smart speaker that responds to voice commands, can currently provide the user help with menial tasks such as music playback, writing to-do lists and providing weather information.

The Alexa technology can act as an intelligent hub for a home

But given Amazon’s explicit public announcement of investment in artificial intelligence talent, combined with their implicit investment in machine learning talent out of University of Washington, the retailer is more than likely working on other applications for their AI technology, which could include commerce.

Amazon already has a robust mobile sales platform through their mobile-optimized Web site and the Amazon app, which has been so successful in its rollout that almost 70 percent of customers who did holiday shopping on Amazon last year did so on mobile.

However, the company’s laser-focus on artificial intelligence investment looks to be a harbinger of a paradigm shift in their market approach. Marketers and retailers should not be surprised if Amazon trots out commercial applications for their Amazon Echo and Alexa technology at the expense of mobile, and they should not be surprised if the company is the first to do so.

Amazon’s latest AI offering, the budget Echo Dot

Shifting landscape
While it is yet to be seen whether artificial intelligence will usurp mobile’s reign as ecommerce’s golden platform, it is clear that Amazon has enough confidence in the strength of their app to invest in non-mobile spaces.

BabyCenter has rolled out its first My Pregnancy skill for the Amazon Alexa application on its Echo devices, allowing expectant parents to leverage the voice-activated technology to count down to their baby’s delivery date and receive medically reviewed child development updates (see story).

And Amazon has continued to expand its Dash service, a wireless ordering platform that allows Prime customers to instantly order select products at the push of a button (see story).

“It’s hard to say all the ways that mobile commerce will be affected, but commerce in general will be impacted,” Ms. Troutman said.

“In a sense, Alexa will compete with other similar devices— Google Assistant, Apple Siri, and Microsoft Cortana. The key is that mobile may first give way to A.I. as a disruptive technology that leverages the changes surrounding IT.

“You no longer may need a device in your hand to transact any activities, including commerce. The mobile device simply plays into the overall infrastructure and ecosystem of access points to conduct your daily business, entertainment or common actions.”

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Rakin Azfar is editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York. Reach him at

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