By tradition, Amazon CTO Werner Vogels concluded the AWS re:Invent conference with his final day’s keynote. A more recent tradition is that he also uses the publication day his predictions for the coming year. This time, I sat down with Vogels for a wide-ranging interview before his keynote to explore the trends he sees and expects to intensify in the coming year.
This 2023, most of our discussion is focused on generative AI, of course. But the Netherlands-born and based Vogels has an interesting perspective here – and one that is often missing from many discussions about generative AI. His first prediction is that generative AI will be culturally aware, meaning the models will gain a better understanding of different cultural traditions.
“You start to realize that most of these machines are already trained Common Crawl, which is English, very US-centric and Western European,” he said. “And it’s not just a matter of language — although language always includes cultural things — but more of the data they’re training on.”
He noted that if companies want to deploy these genAI tools globally, they need to start thinking about how to make their models more culturally aware. “If we don’t solve this, it will be a big obstacle to deploying this technology around the world because it’s not just about language, it’s about all aspects of culture that are meaningful to us as humans,” he said.
He noted that he believes there are technologies available today that can solve this, including multiple agents debating and testing each other, for example.
Being at a developer event, we also touched on what this new world of large language models (LLMs) means for developers. Vogels, like many in our industry, believes that generative AI can greatly improve developer productivity. The tools available a few years ago, he says, were useful for a certain type of developer, but today’s code completion and generation services have a very different quality.
“I think the tools at that time are at a level that really supports the type of ‘copy-and-paste’ developer, the person who usually goes to Stack Overflow, posts a question, waits for a hundred upvotes and think: that must be the right answer,” Vogels said.
That work in the past, he believes, was mostly focused on efficiency. “I think what’s changed is that the tools now can have a broader view of things,” he said. He likens this new generation of development tools to match programming, where the AI model is more like having a senior developer by your side who knows everything about a given code base.
Like many of his peers, Vogels also strongly believes that generative AI will free developers from a lot of the busy work of writing tests, refactoring code and writing boilerplate. And while some technologists worry that using these tools will actually hinder junior developers from honing their craft, Vogels doesn’t believe that’s the case. “There’s a ton of learning on the job. That’s always happening. I’m hoping with newer tools, that this education is faster, but there’s always a lot of education on the job.
He also noted that the continued advancement of technology means it is more important now than ever for colleges and universities not just to teach students the raw skills but how to learn. “There is tremendous value in what universities teach you: they teach you how to learn. They teach you how to see the bigger picture. They teach you how to analyze. They teach all these brain things that you need on the job,” Vogels said — though he didn’t want to talk about the current state of humanities programs in the United States.
Vogel’s predictions don’t just point to AI, though. She also believes that FemTech will eventually fade away, in part because there is less stigma now in talking about women’s health care. “It’s a social change. The stigma is changing. Men talk about menopause these days, because their wives or friends or girlfriends or daughters go through it and they see it. If you go back 20 years, women themselves don’t even talk about it,” she said. And with that, venture capital also started flowing into this market.
Vogels believes that because the medical establishment often dismisses women’s health concerns or privileges men’s health, we may be arriving at an interesting moment now when it comes to personal and precision medicine where many women’s health cares jump to these more modern methods.
“I see it in FemTech, where the transition is immediate: let’s take it one step further – let’s make sure we can really do precision health care,” he said.
In many ways, Vogels is an optimist when it comes to technology and its potential to do good. “I have solved many problems in my life. Am I optimistic? Yes, I think so – because we want to do it,” he said. He also added that while the US startup scene may be used to the idea of creating unicorns, in the rest of the world, people often want to build a sustainable business.
But he noted that one issue facing the tech industry is that it’s moving at such a fast clip today, it’s hard for people to keep up. “The challenge that we have, I think, right now, is that our technology adoption cycles have become so compressed that it’s difficult to educate people up front – before the technology is released. I think it’s one of the challenges. Maybe not even for businesses, but if you release consumer technology into the open without education, people get confused. You get a knee-jerk reaction. I think with good will -on, we’re going to fix these things. But we also have to make sure that we don’t underestimate that we have to continue to educate people about the new technologies that we’re providing.”
There was something that made him happy about this quick cycle, though. “The good thing is: I don’t have to talk to my customers about blockchain,” he says with a grin.