Amazon Is Building a Machine Learning Research Center with USC

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

Amazon Is Building a Machine Learning Research Center with USC
Photo by Fran on Unsplash

Alexa-maker Amazon is creating a machine learning and artificial intelligence research lab at USC as the retail giant grapples with growing privacy concerns around its products. The Center for Secure and Trusted Machine Learning, part of USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, will support research that looks at new ways to secure and preserve privacy in machine learning and can be applied at scale "to support billions of users."

Amazon's artificial intelligence systems extend beyond its smart home devices; the company automates much of its processes using machine learning; including product recommendation, the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Go store (a brick and mortar location that runs without cashiers). Amazon also recently launched Halo, a wearable fitness tracker comparable to the Fitbit that also connects with Alexa and the rest of its smart devices.


A.I. and machine learning underpin almost all Amazon's products, and the technology is what powers any smart home device. The "internet of things" concept -- the idea that different individual computers can communicate with one another on a universal network -- is also powered by A.I. Nearly all big tech companies use A.I.

"A.I. fuels just about everything we do at Amazon, and we challenge ourselves every day to find ways to use this technology to benefit customers," a company spokesperson told dot.LA. "A.I. is a key part of our culture because we are customer obsessed, and these technologies have developed as great tools for developing and improving customer experiences."

Amazon wouldn't comment on if it will use this research to develop its A.I.-enabled products, like the Alexa smart device.

Though it has relationships with other colleges, the program with USC is Amazon's first machine learning-focused fellowship project with a campus.

The center's goal is to make A.I. and machine learning technologies more secure and trusted by the public. It will be directed by Salman Avestimehr, professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC, who will also oversee related fellowships and the overall project.

Avestimehr said he thinks there are many companies besides Amazon that could benefit from the center's research.

"Amazon is interested in this, and many others. [Machine learning] is a hot topic, and it's on everybody's mind," Avestimehr said. "Privacy, security and trust resonates with everybody."

\u200bSalman Avestimehr USC

Salman Avestimehr is a professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC.

Privacy, according to Avestimehr, refers to keeping individual users' data safe, while security is related to securing the open-source systems from threats. "Since everybody can be a part of this ecosystem of machine learning, therefore it is also open to any adversary behavior," he added.

There's also the challenge big tech companies face in getting their customers to fully trust their automated systems (and keep using their devices).

Google is another tech giant that's trying to figure out how to approach and market A.I., which it uses in many facets of its business including its Google Home devices, which compete with Amazon's Alexa. Lead researchers and engineers at Google have quit over concerns the company and its CEO Sundar Pichai aren't prioritizing diversity in developing A.I. -- an issue they've voiced since 2015. Google's co-head of ethical A.I. Margaret Mitchell is currently under investigation for allegedly sharing classified Google documents with outside sources.

"If this is something like coming up with this algorithm to run your home, how would you trust that? How do you trust this algorithm that is learning by itself?," Avestimehr said.

Amazon had similar issues. Cybersecurity researchers including those at Check Point have uncovered privacy concerns with the Alexa, including the ability to hack into the device, steal personal information and change which "skills" Alexa can perform. "Successful exploitation would have required just one click," Check Point wrote in its report.

At CES last year, Amazon said it sold at least 200 million Alexa devices to date, and that its customers use the voice assistant prompts to control their smart homes a combined "hundreds of millions of times" each week.

"At Amazon, privacy and security are foundational," an Amazon spokesperson said. "Our highest priorities are keeping customers' information safe, providing customers with transparency and control, and making privacy controls incredibly easy to use and understand."

The technology and research produced by the lab could lead to a wider understanding of how A.I. and machine learning works. Avestimehr said he hopes it'll also convince the public to engage with more complex A.I. systems that could actually be dangerous, like autonomous vehicles.

"They're not making big decisions yet," Avestimehr said of most current A.I. systems.

Under Avestimehr's direction, the center will accept qualified USC PhD candidates into its Amazon Machine Learning Fellows program, where they will gain access to funded research projects, annual fellowships, public research symposiums and annual workshops. The program will also reach out to younger engineers; there are plans to train and eventually recruit high school and university students.

"Related to our university, it's good at attracting talent, educating talent and these fellowship resources will be very useful to drawing talented students, educating them and [also] recognizing the greatest students we have at USC," Avestimehr said.

Amazon and USC have partnered before on projects. The ecommerce giant said through a spokesperson that it chose to work with USC to develop a machine learning center partly because it deepens Amazon's access to the graduate talent pool.

"We are delighted to bring together top talent at Amazon and USC in a joint mission to drive ground-breaking advances in privacy and security preserving machine learning; advances that enable us to continue to safely and securely deliver experiences," Amazon's Alexa AI Vice President — and former USC vice dean of engineering — Prem Natarajan said in a statement.

Though it's headquartered in Seattle, Amazon has a sizable operation in Los Angeles. The company said it continues to hire at its hub in L.A., and added, "there are currently more than 500 tech and corporate roles available." Right now, Amazon said it employs thousands in L.A. County.

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🎬 Paramount and Skydance Are Back On
Image Source: Paramount

Happy Friday Los Angeles! Hope you all had a fantastic Fourth!!

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Paramount and Skydance Media have rekindled talks to merge after negotiations abruptly halted in June. The proposed deal, contingent on approval from Paramount’s board, aims to combine Paramount’s extensive media holdings—including CBS, MTV, and Nickelodeon—with Skydance’s film expertise showcased in hits like "Top Gun: Maverick." This merger signals a potential transformation in the media landscape, positioning the new entity to compete more effectively amid challenges from streaming services and the decline of traditional cable TV.

Led by Shari Redstone, Paramount’s controlling shareholder via National Amusements, the deal represents a pivot towards revitalizing Paramount’s strategic direction amidst financial struggles and shareholder concerns. The involvement of major investors like RedBird Capital Partners and David Ellison underscores the financial backing aimed at stabilizing Paramount’s operations and addressing its $14 billion debt burden. Importantly, the agreement includes provisions to protect National Amusements from potential legal challenges, addressing previous hurdles that stalled earlier negotiations.

The deal also includes a 45-day period for Paramount to explore alternative offers, highlighting continued interest from other potential buyers like Barry Diller’s IAC and media executive Edgar Bronfman Jr. This flurry of activity underscores the significant stakeholders’ interest in Paramount’s future and its potential as a key player in a rapidly evolving media industry.


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😊🚘 Rivian's $5 Billion Lifeline

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Volkswagen announced on Tuesday a significant investment of up to $5 billion in Rivian, a struggling electric truck manufacturer known for its vehicles' distinctive smiley-face design reminiscent of Volkswagen's iconic Beetle. This partnership marks a unique collaboration between the world's second-largest automaker and a startup grappling with profitability challenges akin to those faced by Tesla. Volkswagen's infusion of $1 billion initially, potentially rising to $5 billion pending regulatory approval, underscores its strategic pivot towards enhancing its electric vehicle (EV) software capabilities, an area where analysts believe the company has lagged.

For Rivian, which has received acclaim for its electric trucks and SUVs but struggles with production ramp-up and financial losses, the investment offers crucial financial backing. The company plans to utilize Volkswagen's expertise in manufacturing, leveraging the German automaker's annual production of nearly 10 million vehicles. This alliance aims to bolster Rivian's efforts to launch new models like the R2 midsize SUV and complete its Georgia factory, paused earlier this year to conserve funds. Rivian's stock surged upwards of 40% following the announcement, reflecting investor optimism in the company's future prospects.

Despite their differing corporate cultures—Volkswagen's traditional, structured approach contrasted with Rivian's agile tech startup ethos—the CEOs of both companies expressed mutual admiration and shared goals during the partnership announcement. The collaboration is expected to yield EV software solutions benefiting Volkswagen's various brands, potentially including Audi and Porsche, while allowing Rivian to maintain its brand identity and separate vehicle marketing strategies. This strategic partnership between Volkswagen and Rivian not only promises to revolutionize the electric vehicle market but also highlights the potential for collaboration between established automakers and innovative startups in Southern California, where Rivian is based. Here’s to hoping these smiling cars will balance out some of the inevitable LA road rage.

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