Amazon’s futurologists come to the river Cam
Multinationals are fretting over investing in the UK as Brexit looms, but Amazon is undaunted. The internet retail giant opened a research and development centre in the heart of Cambridge this month, with 400 employees devoted to making further breakthroughs in drone deliveries and artificial intelligence.
Amazon Research Cambridge is housed in a new building, with a team of engineers, scientists and researchers adding to R&D work being carried out at an existing site in the city. It will be dedicated to “pure innovation” according to Amazon’s UK boss, Doug Gurr.
“When picking a site for a development centre you have to start with where you find the world’s best scientists, engineers and technologists. But it also has to be somewhere that people want to come and live,” said Gurr.
The new facility forms part of Amazon’s £6.4bn investment in the UK since 2010, and of the 5,000 jobs it has pledged to create this year. The company also has research and engineering teams in London and Edinburgh and employs 24,000 in the UK in total.
The office has been designed with spaces intended to allow the collaboration and chance encounters on the stairs or at coffee points that often foster innovation. “We want the serendipitous, come-and-have-a-cup-ofcoffee-for-a-chat environment, so we have open staircases between floors,” said Gurr. “But we’ll tend to focus on things that generate hard work and innovation rather than stuff that might be perceived as a bit more gimmicky.”
Amazon’s R&D teams work in many fields, from features on the company’s website to the devices and technologies that are seen as its future.
The team in Cambridge has a key role in the development of Amazon’s voice-controlled home assistant, Alexa, from the machine learning that powers it and the back-end knowledge that lets it answer questions to the speech synthesis systems that allow it to sound as close to human as possible. Amazon bought Evi, the Cambridge-based AI firm, in 2012 and the company’s technology and staff have been central to the development of Alexa.
Amazon’s drones are another focus for the Cambridge operation, helped by the regulatory regime put in place by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority.
“One the reasons we do a lot of the Prime Air team work in Cambridge is that we signed the Pathfinder agreement with the CAA, which allows us to test drones and real customer deliveries,” said Gurr. “It’s a rather progressive way of thinking about this – instead of sitting there and saying we’re going to write the regulation in isolation without understanding of the technology, they’re going to be looking over our shoulder every step of the way and they’re going to develop the regulation hand-in-hand with the technology.”
Amazon’s new centre: ‘serendipitous’.