Takeaways on the Future of AI from Cerebral Valley, Shoptalk and More

Plus I have an AI column at The Information now!

👋🏽Hey friends,

I have a quick report on the future of AI (and more) for y’all — LIVE from the field!

I spent all of last week traveling, first to Las Vegas for Shoptalk (10,000+ people, the biggest gathering of retail & commerce leaders) and then to San Francisco for two Generative AI events — the Generative AI social hour & panel at The Modernist and the Cerebral Valley Summit hosted by and Volley.

In the span of ~4 days, I spoke with hundreds of CEOs, leaders and experts in a whirlwind trip. I gained valuable intel on what’s on the mind of ecommerce’s leaders, the current state of generative AI, and what the leaders in AI are quietly talking about behind closed doors.

There’s a lot to cover, so let’s dive straight in.

Me speaking about Generative AI at the Modernist’s Generative AI meetup. From left to right: Luigi Congedo, Me, Cathy Gao, and Kathleen Chaykowski

Generative AI Promises to Transform Medicine and Education

At the Generative AI social hour last week at The Modernist, my fellow panelists and I were asked by Tome’s Head of Integrated Comms Kathleen Chaykowski what problems we thought generative AI could solve.

  • Sapphire Ventures partner Cathy Gao spoke about technology she had recently seen that would help scientists customize cancer and other treatments per individual.

  • VC and former Bootstraps Labs investor Luigi Congedo pointed to a world where education became more accessible to all — more students could access more information and get educated, no matter where they lived.

  • We also talked about the open letter calling for a pause on AI (more on that below) and the possibility that AI could take jobs more quickly than they could be replaced (more on that in a few weeks), but for the most part, the crowd was enthusiastic about all the things that are now possible due to the generative AI revolution.

  • The entire panel — and most of the room as well — feel as if generative AI is the biggest opportunity for entrepreneurs since the invention of the Internet itself. Our panel also firmly believed AI could do profound good for the world. But the safety risks are real and the possibility of mass layoffs due to AI is real as well.

I promise to post the full video of our panel when I have it!

Don’t Build the Wrong Kind of AI Business

Thanks to a new wave of APIs and developer tools from companies like Open AI, tens of thousands of developers are building AI applications big and small in rapid succession.

All this activity in AI has led to a new wave of AI startups and will lead to many more. There are real opportunities to build unicorns—but carelessly slapping generative AI on top of your business model isn’t one of them.

Many apps built right now will fail to attract customers, investors or both. Many venture capitalists I’ve spoken with are waiting to see which companies take off. Others are afraid of platform risk—what if OpenAI builds a competitor to your product and nips your idea before it’s even had a chance to bud?

So what should startups do? How can they make sure to build a defensible AI business that lasts?

That is the topic of my column last week on The Information. Take a read and let me know what you think!

Even in Ecommerce, Everyone Is Talking about AI

Are you surprised?

Attendees talked about the usual stuff — conversion rates, how to break into retail, email marketing strategies, which Shopify apps to use — but a large chunk of my conversations were about ChatGPT, how stores can use generative AI, and meeting new startups building AI uses case for everything from virtual fashion try-ons to product image/video generation to AI-powered voice greetings.

Perhaps I just attract these type of conversations, but there were more AI companies exhibiting on the floor of Shoptalk this year than any year I can remember. AI is eating every industry, ecommerce included. Brands are looking for AI-powered solutions to boost their sales and lower their costs.

Overall though, retail and ecommerce are going strong, despite the wobbly economy and recent wave of layoffs. TikTok and Snapchat had HUGE activations at this year’s Shoptalk, Nelly performed to an enthusiastic crowd, and the drinks flowed freely at the open bar.

AI and layoffs are top of mind for everyone in commerce, but at least for a few days, problems felt far away — like they did before the pandemic.

I’m looking forward to Shoptalk 2024!

No shortage of old and new friends in Las Vegas!

The “Pause AI” Letter Falls Apart — but the Fears Remain

It took less than a week for the “Pause AI” letter to completely drop out of the news cycle.

The letter— which Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak and Stability AI CEO Emad Mostaque sign— called for a 6-month “pause” on all research for any AI more powerful than GPT-4. But within days, the holes in the letter became apparent. Vice’s Motherboard found that some of the research cited by the letter was potentially misrepresented. Last week, I pointed out that there is no effective way to enforce a global 6-month ban (rogue nations would take advantage of it) and that signees like Elon Musk and several researchers at Google are competitors to Open AI and would benefit from Open AI being forced to stop work on GPT-5.

Since the letter’s release, more people — including signees — have distanced themselves from some of the letter’s arguments. At the Cerebral Valley Summit in SF, Stability AI’s CEO said he disagreed with much of the content in the letter, but that he still thought it was worthwhile to point out that caution was warranted when it comes to AI development. Other attendees and speakers were asked about the letter at the Summit, but everyone said essentially the same thing — that the letter took the wrong approach, but that it was important to make AI safe for everyone.

There will be no pause in AI anytime soon, but the fears around AI’s rapid development remains — both with the public and with some of AI’s top leaders.

Can anyone catch up to Open AI?

When you talk about AI, there is one company that always comes to mind and dominates all the headlines.

Yes, it’s Open AI. Every developer is using Open AI’s APIs for their apps. Public companies from Shopify to Snapchat are leveraging GPT-4 for their products. And nobody is close to matching ChatGPT's popularity. This isn’t even including GPT-5, which could be done with its training at the end of this year.

My new friend Rachel Woods pointed out on her TikTok that Open AI has become the 80,000-pound gorilla in any AI room. The constant discussion at the Cerebral Valley summit was whether there is room for other AI companies (the answer is yes — especially for companies powering open-source models) and whether Google can catch up (the answer is also yes — they have more than enough data and smart people to close the gap).

The Cerebral Valley Summit made it clear there are lots of innovative minds tackling lots of unique problems in AI. The first panel of the day included three female Y Combinator founders building new AI companies. And there are hundreds of new companies getting built and funded in the AI space. In February, ThereAnAIForThat.com was tracking almost 2,000 AI products. In early April, that number has jumped to over 3,000. That’s 1,000 new AI products in the span of a month.

For now, though, all these other companies are tiny compared to Open AI. It is synonymous with AI itself. I’ve never witnessed a company with this kind of trajectory in my entire life. It’s startling to behold, but I suspect that it will only get more competitive for Open AI from this point forward.

‘There’s too much opportunity’ in Cerebral Valley

TechCrunch’s Natasha Mascarenhas wrote an excellent piece summarizing the conversations at the Cerebral Valley Summit.

Of course I am biased because my quote is the headline of the article!

I’ve shared my section of the article here, but I highly encourage you to go over to TechCrunch and read the whole thing.

One big takeaway from both this article and Cerebral Valley: VCs may be super excited by generative AI, but very few have made any actual investments. They are in wait-and-see mode. There are simple too many companies and too much noise in the space.

Also, I may have let it slip in TechCrunch that Octane AI is now profitable. Like I said in the article, last year sucked; this year is great!

For now, I’m just gonna keep building and you should too. There has never been a faster or more exciting time to be in tech in my entire life.


~ Ben

P.S. You want to know how crazy it is in AI and in SF? Two weeks ago, the CEO of Hugging Face (huge open-source AI platform & library) asked if anyone was interested in a Generative AI meetup. Over 4,000 developers and AI enthusiasts showed up and showcased what they had built on top of Hugging Face’s machine learning models.

P.S.S. I will be in Japan starting next week. Let me know if you want to meet up!