Amazon Unveils New Machine-Learning Services, with an Emphasis on Easier Use

Amazon Web Services, the online retailer's cloud-computing unit, has unveiled new services designed to let developers more easily use artificial intelligence capabilities.

by Matt Day, The Seattle Times / November 30, 2017
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(TNS) — LAS VEGAS — Amazon Web Services unveiled its latest wares in the cloud-computing arms race here on Wednesday, deploying a suite of services designed to let software developers take advantage of artificial intelligence capabilities without first getting a Ph.D.

Andy Jassy, chief executive of the online retailer’s cloud-computing unit, announced more than a dozen new services, including software that translates and transcribes speech, analyzes videos and gives developers a leg up in building their own tools. He was speaking in a keynote Wednesday morning at AWS’s sixth annual re:Invent conference.

“The hype and the hope here is tremendous,” Jassy said of machine learning, the set of services that helps algorithms improve with experience. Many companies are experimenting with such services, he said, “yet I would argue it’s still very early.”

Jassy’s unit, Amazon’s most profitable division, grew up by offering bite-sized, simple services: storage and computing power, at first, and later, database tools and other on-demand versions of existing business software.

The next frontier is applications that can help developers train algorithms to do things like sift through thousands of hotel reviews to find the most salient points, or serve up useful music recommendations to listeners on a streaming service.

It’s a highly competitive field. Microsoft, through its research arm, has deep experience at the cutting edge of intelligent software. So does Google, by virtue of the expertise built by developing its search engine and ubiquitous consumer apps. Some technologists say those companies’ expertise gives them a leg up on Amazon when building services designed to recognize human intent or detect patterns in data.

AWS, the market leader in cloud computing services by a wide margin, responded on Wednesday with Jassy spending much of his keynote discussing next-generation software and bringing AWS customers to the stage to testify to its utility.

An executive at the National Football League demonstrated how, using new software called Amazon SageMaker, developers can sort through the outcome of thousands of plays and calculate the odds of a successful pass to specific receivers.

With thousands of combinations of player routes, team formations and outcomes, that “can get complicated,” said Michelle McKenna-Doyle, the NFL’s chief information officer.

Jassy kicked off his speech with an outline of his unit’s size. AWS in September was on pace to bring in $18 billion in sales over the next 12 months.

That comes from a customer base that includes nearly 3,000 government agencies, 8,000 academic institutions, 22,000 nonprofits, and more than one million businesses. Large companies are increasingly shutting down their own data centers, moving applications to cloud-computing providers like Amazon. That move is accelerating, as developers and executives get more comfortable with such web-based services, and as those services improve.

Mark Okerstrom, chief executive of Bellevue-based travel booking giant Expedia, said the company expected to move 80 percent of its most important applications to AWS in the next three years.

Expedia’s spending already adds up to a massive investment in time and money on Amazon’s platform. Okerstrom said Expedia expected to spend $100 million on AWS services this year, and $150 million in 2018.

Much of that spending goes toward AWS services that replace programs Expedia had previously run itself. But Okerstom said he hoped to use AWS to analyze customers’ travel preferences and serve up to users the most relevant hotel listings without making them dig through search results.

“For us, it’s getting closer to absolute personalization,” he said. “Being able to deliver to you the perfect set of travel search results for where you’re going and what you want to do.”

Amazon, which has long led its competitors in the sheer number of cloud-computing services it offered, filled a rare gap in that portfolio in its blitz of announcements on Wednesday.

Amazon’s chief rivals in cloud infrastructure, Microsoft and Google, offer products tailored to Kubernetes, a popular system for managing the nimble software framework called containers (Containers are a way to run software in isolated, self-contained units, making it easier for developers to keep them updated and move the program among different computers or the cloud). Amazon didn’t have anything comparable, until Wednesday.

And after the day’s flood of new service launches, Jassy didn’t seem worried by the contention in some circles that competitors’ product menus were catching up to AWS’s.

“AWS has just so much more functionality,” he said. “By a lot.”

©2017 The Seattle Times Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.