Ama­zon’s fu­tur­ol­o­gists come to the river Cam

The Observer - - BUSINESS - By Sa­muel Gibbs

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’.

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