Corporate Giving in Pursuit of a Competitive Edge: The Case of Amazon and AI

The charitable tax deduction was created by Congress a century ago to spur more giving to advance the greater good. But corporations have long been savvy at using their philanthropy to improve the bottom line. Such self-interested giving has historically aimed to bolster brand identity and curry goodwill through charitable activities. Over time, though, companies have gotten more sophisticated at using tax-deductible giving to pursue other goals, too, including underwriting research aimed at improving their future competitiveness. 

We've written a bit lately at Uber's big giving for research to advance self-driving cars. Here, we look at what Amazon is up to.

As the race on artificial intelligence heats up, Amazon is turning to college students with a prize that will tackle a major obstacle—understanding language. The results stand to bolster Amazon's lead in voice-activated home assistants. 

A Holy Grail for some tech companies right now is a smart home assistant that operates like the nameless Enterprise computer on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Ask for something—say, a cup of Earl Grey tea—and it appears. 

We’re still pretty far from it. Last time I had an iPhone, Siri was borderline useless. Google Now’s steadily become more reliable for a number of hands-free requests. Now, we have Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa. But the problem with a voice-activated assistant is that even if it gets it right most of the time, occasional lapses prevent it from becoming a reliable tool.

Don’t get too mad at Siri, though, as understanding language is a massive challenge for AI, and one that is integral to taking the technology to the next level. 

The latest high-dollar competition, launched recently by Amazon, is recruiting college students to make a big leap in the way artificial intelligence communicates with humans. In the first annual Alexa Prize, teams of students are tasked with creating “socialbots” on Amazon’s Alexa virtual assistant platform that can converse for 20 minutes just as another human would. Ten teams will each receive a $100,000 stipend to work on the project. The best bot’s team will win a $500,000 prize, and if it can pass the 20-minute conversation test, take home an additional $1 million. Amazon hopes the prize will lead to breakthroughs, not only in a computer’s knack for communication, but also its commonsense reasoning and learning abilities.

The competition is the latest move by a tech industry fixated on artificial intelligence. AI research is increasingly reliant on casting a wide net in terms of the number of minds working on the problem.

That's true in how the race for self-driving cars has been pairing up (to put it kindly) corporate R&D with academic research departments. Microsoft recently announced a 5,000-person AI research and engineering division in line with its goal to “democratize AI.” Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and IBM also just formed a Partnership on AI that seeks to develop best practices on artificial intelligence

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Amazon has already been pushing its own AI efforts beyond its company walls (hoping to have more luck than Hooli). It developed an Alexa Fund that is putting $100 million in venture capital funding toward voice technology innovation. And last year, Amazon opened up Alexa to developers, inviting tens of thousands of them to add to its growing list of skills.

The Alexa Prize similarly uses the high-dollar competition model, which we’ve seen blow up among philanthropists and corporations in recent years to bring fresh minds to bear on voice technology. The competition offers the unique advantage of being able to test the bots with millions of real Alexa users, gaining instant feedback to improve the algorithms. And in an odd case of corporate synergy, Jeff Bezos’ little side project the Washington Post will offer its full archive of news and comments as a dataset for the competition. Let’s hope Alexa doesn’t learn communication skills from the comment sections. 

These corporate-sponsored high-dollar competitions, a la the XPrize—which now offers an XPrize for AI, by the way—tend to fall somewhere on a spectrum between seeking some kind of social good and outsourcing R&D to advance its business interests. The Alexa Prize is probably closer to the latter.

There certainly is a case to be made that better artificial intelligence will make the world a better place, helping to solve some of its toughest problems. Then again, in other philanthropic corners of the tech world, projects of Elon Musk and Dustin Moskovitz are funding work to ensure future AI actually has our best interests in mind and doesn’t run amok and become an existential threat to humanity. 

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But whether AI saves the world, dooms humanity, or somewhere in between, advances from the Alexa Prize definitely stand to bolster Amazon’s foothold and profitability as a part of our daily lives. 

There’s a heated race among tech companies to develop the indispensable home assistant, part of a “smart home” that not only responds to questions and commands, but also weaves its intelligence throughout other sensor-equipped appliances and devices to anticipate needs. Amazon is pushing out new products equipped with Alexa technology, and Google just unveiled Google Home to compete. 

This is related to what's often called the “Internet of Things,” bringing connectivity beyond computers and phones to other objects, and it’s closely linked to advances in artificial intelligence. The idea is that more sensors on things in the world will collect more data, which makes AI smarter, which will make our things work better. 

One small example that’s already in the works is Alexa’s compatibility with a smart coffee machine. You can tell Alexa to make coffee (sorry, no Earl Grey) and the machine will fire up. When you’re running low on beans, it will automatically order more—from Amazon, of course. 

So you can start to see how cutting-edge voice technology and artificial intelligence is immensely valuable to Amazon. Just imagine a home that anticipates all of your needs and runs like clockwork, with Amazon as both command center and source of supplies. 

We’re not quite on the USS Enterprise, but we’re getting closer, fast. And a couple million in stipends and prizes for smart college students is more than worth it for the company to speed things up. 

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