Amazon's A9 search and advertising subsidiary reportedly has hired a new director of artificial intelligence: Hassan Sawaf, who most recently served in a similar capacity with Amazon e-commerce rival eBay, according to the Wall Street Journal, citing the job change on Sawaf's LinkedIn page.
Sawaf has almost 20 years of experience in the field, and holds a patent in hybrid machine translation — technology which is used to enable machines to translate from one language to another. He had been at eBay since 2013, reportedly setting up its cognitive computing group and leading efforts to enable context translations for shoppers searching in foreign languages so that items listed in English will show up in their search results.
eBay confirmed Sawaf had left the company, but Amazon has not commented on the hire.
If you are a retailer — or any company in any industry — that already has a director of artificial intelligence and/or machine learning in-house, you should check right now to make sure that person is happy and well-paid. In fact, make sure everyone working for that person feels the same way.
Amazon is not the only major retailer in the hunt for AI talent, as retailers as varied as Macy's and Staples also have been exploring various applications for AI. However, Amazon has been typically aggressive in investing in that area: Last spring, the e-commerce giant acquired Orbeus, a company that had developed AI-based photo recognition technology. Amazon also recruited a team of researchers from Cambridge University.
eBay, meanwhile, has been quite vocal about how it has been using AI to enrich the customer shopping experience, and in general how important the technology is to its future. Yet as AI increasingly comes into play in the evolution of the retail shopping experience, we also can expect increasing competition between retailers for experienced engineers and executives skilled in the technology.
Many reports about what retailers are doing with AI tend to focus on virtual assistant solutions, voice-driven devices (like Amazon's Alexa, IBM's Watson or Microsoft's Cortana, among others) and advanced search capabilities, but these developments really only scratch the surface regarding the roles AI may play in retail. One can envision an AI-based device or program become the most personal of personal shoppers for consumers. Companies like Amazon are building formidable teams — and apparently stealing key talent from others — because they see now the huge role AI is going to play in the future of retail.
AI could boost Amazon's presentation of merchandise in an era when consumers increasingly expect to be captivated by brands through images, video and even augmented reality experiences. Columbia University retail studies business professor Mark Cohen recently told Retail Dive that he expects the e-commerce giant will soon expand its sales horizons, and the Sawaf hire is one indication that's true.
“I would expect Amazon to work on significantly enhancing the connection customers have with their site, whether it’s enhanced reality, a way for a viewer to examine products in 3D, or animating the site more aggressively more than they do now,” Cohen said.