Cutting edge innovation at Amazon’s new development centre in Cambridge is accelerating hour by hour, day by day 24/7 across a broad range of technology areas, including drones, voice recognition and machine learning.
That’s why keeping up with customer demands is the obsession driving technicians and management at the Cambridge hothouse rather than fretting over what competitors are doing.
The ‘innovation first and foremost’ mantra was spelled out to guests at the official opening of the 60,000 sq ft centre over three floors of One Station Square by Amazon’s UK country manager Doug Gurr and Alexa Knowledge team manager David Hardcastle.
Gurr said: “We are constantly surprised by the pace of innovation demanded and expected by customers. It is clear that customer expectations keep rising and it is impossible to say how long that will continue to happen or how high they will go.
“That is why we don’t worry about competition; keeping pace with what our customers want will always be our obsession.”
Senior management told media and guests that Cambridge’s unique talent base made it the ideal location for the new centre. Gurr said it was a fabulous location for recruiting the top people although Amazon was casting its net globally.
“It’s a beautiful city with great history and when you add in the exceptional talent available here the whole package far outweighs the challenges presented by housing and infrastructure. All fast-growing clusters face such challenges.”
He said Amazon wanted to create an holistic tech community in Cambridge with an ecosystem embracing academia, startups, apprentices, STEM students and other synergistic players.
“There has never been a better time to start a business anywhere in the world. If people have a great idea we can facilitate their scale-up and even host them under our Web Services offering. Cambridge is a great example of the perfect environment to scale any business.
“When we searched locations our prime objective was to find a facility which allowed for future expansion but also propagated flexible working; where people could bump into each other and share a coffee while swapping ideas. We have that here.”
Gurr revealed that Amazon refused to put a date on the launch of its proposed drones ‘package delivery in under 30 minutes’ service. He said the company was working with both the Civil Aviation Authority and Department for Transport on continuing trials of the technology to ensure not just speed and efficiency, but above all safety of service.
“They are looking over our shoulders and we all agree that when the regulation is ready the technology will be ready. There is no fixed date.”
The first trial was held at a location near Cambridge last December and more tests would be conducted “to see what the technology is capable of.”
The partners would meanwhile continue to work together to deliver a regulatory framework to guarantee safe flying, Gurr said.
With an eye to future recruitment of talent and the training of potential recruits, Gurr said that Amazon was sponsoring the Cambridge Launchpad scheme which encourages more youngsters to study STEM subjects.
Youngsters aged eight to 12 an insight into Amazon’s work on drones through its Prime Air drones delivery venture and Alexa, the ‘brain’ that powers devices such as Amazon Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show. The objective was to nudge more youngsters of both sexes towards studying STEM subjects and grooming them for ultimate careers in science & technology. The company also has thriving apprenticeship programmes.
These are among a number of programmes UK-wide which Amazon is backing to generate more home-grown talent for the future, Gurr said. He said the ongoing process of gleaning customer feedback to existing technology offerings included consideration of what disadvantaged customers such as the visually impaired and the elderly required of certain devices. Amazon is working with the RNIB among other organisations in this regard.
It was also widening its talent brief to prepare staff for future roles stemming from AI and ML – including robotics technicians and managers.
David Hardcastle senior manager of the Alexa Knowledge team in Cambridge, said that other innovation areas being handled from here – often as part of worldwide teams – included Amazon Devices. These include Echo voice-controlled speakers and the recently announced Amazon Cloud Cam.
Also on the Cambridge agenda were core machine learning and retail systems designed to improve the shopping experience for Amazon customers.
So 10 years on from the launch of the Kindle e-reader – beating Cambridge’s own attempts by Plastic Logic to be first to market with QUE – Amazon is raising the bar ever higher, said Hardcastle.
“Here in Cambridge we are looking at something new hour by hour, day by day,” said Hardcastle. “A lot of observers see machine learning as something new but Amazon has been a pioneer in the market for several years.”
Amazon was now harnessing its constantly-evolving Cambridge capabilities, as part of international teams, to further refine its already-launched device offerings, making delivery of speech recognition sound ever more human and enhancing the services available to a wider audience on other devices it engineers.
Amazon’s aim is to have 500 people working on innovation from Cambridge – 400 of them at the city centre hub and another 100 at its Castle Park facility, which would be retained for additional Alexa teams.
Doug Gurr said Amazon planned further investment in its UK operations. It has already invested more than £6.4 billion in the UK in building and running its operations in the last six years or so. This year it has pledged to create 5,000 new permanent roles across the country, keeping it on track to bring its total workforce worldwide to 24,000.
Amazon’s development centres and Amazon Web Services mean that by the end of 2017, the company will have over 1,500 hi-tech roles in the UK working on technologies that benefit customers the length and breadth of the planet.
• PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS: Doug Gurr, Amazon’s UK country manager – image courtesy of Amazon.