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Amazon, eyeing up AI, adds Andrew Ng to its board; ex-MTV exec McGrath to step down

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Amazon, eyeing up AI, adds Andrew Ng to its board; ex-MTV exec McGrath to step down

Image Credits: Nathan Stirk / Getty Images

If corporate boards of directors signal something about where a company wants to be focusing, Amazon’s just made an interesting move to change up its direction. The company has just announced that Andrew Ng — a prominent figure in the world of AI, and specifically building AI within large tech companies — is joining its board of directors. The company also announced, with a little less fanfare, that Judy McGrath — who is best known for her work as a longtime TV executive, running MTV and helping Viacom become a media powerhouse  — will be stepping down as a director.

Taken together, the two moves sketch out an interesting picture about the tech giant.

After many costly years of wanting to go all-on on building out an entertainment empire — Amazon spent almost $19 billion on its video and music business in 2023 — it’s interesting that someone who would have been an important advocate and advisor on that strategy is not going to stand for reelection.

To be clear, this is certainly not a sign that Amazon is not going to continue to be a huge force in streaming entertainment, be it video or music, gaming or anything else. It’s now folding in advertising across Prime Video, one big reason to keep audiences strong. But it will be interesting to see how investment plays out in that segment in 2024 overall. Layoffs in the studio and video divisions, plus winding down activities in some regions, are two signals it could be smaller. And given the AI whiplash that every big tech company feels currently, it feels like a timely detail that now McGrath is stepping away from the board.

On that note, looking ahead, to stay at the front of the tech industry, Amazon will overall be looking for better thought leadership on how it takes its next steps in its artificial intelligence strategy.

It’s worth remembering that Amazon is and has been a leading player in AI for a long time. Its Alexa assistant and Echo devices arguably put voice recognition and connected assistants on the map, spurring many copycat products from rivals; it has been working on autonomous services in airborne and ground-level delivery and in-store purchasing; it uses machine learning to improve how products are targeted; AWS is a big player in AI compute; more recently it has poured billions into investments in big AI startups; and so on.

Yet for at least a year, in the wake of the GPT advancements made by OpenAI and Microsoft’s giant investment in that startup (and the massive scramble from a plethora of other tech companies following that), Amazon has grappled with the impression internally and externally that it is “falling behind” on the technology.

Is it true? Is it just optics? Regardless of what the real answer is, Ng’s appointment can only be helpful in advancing its AI profile, giving it more thought leadership on real innovation, not just making follow-on moves, in the space.

Andrew Ng Landing AIDSC00380Ng is potentially a triple-threat style board appointment, with experience across academia, investing, and hands-on building, usually holding roles across all three simultaneously. His current roles include an adjunct professorship at Stanford; a role as general partner at the AI Fund, a venture studio building and backing AI startups; the head of edtech company DeepLearning.AI and the founder of Landing AI, a computer vision startup. Oh, and he’s also still chair of Coursera, another edtech startup he founded and used to lead.

He has also previously been the chief scientist and a VP at Baidu, the Chinese search giant; and he founded and led Google Brain, which was that search giant’s first big foray into building and applying AI tech across its products.

Amazon does not provide any statement from Ng himself in its announcement. We have reached out to him directly to see if he might tell us a bit more about what he sees as Amazon’s big opportunity and we’ll update when and if we hear back. Right now, it absolutely feels like a new wave of companies and thinkers are setting the pace in AI, but the Amazons of the world are certainly not standing by idly.

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