Fiona Tan speaks at Transform. Photo by: Michael O’Donnell
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The buzz surrounding generative AI has captured the attention of enterprise companies, and online furniture and home decor retailer Wayfair is no exception. Fiona Tan, the company’s CTO, recognizes the significance of this technology trend, while emphasizing the importance of not losing focus on the company’s core objectives.
In a recent interview, Tan discusses her perspective on the major technological trends of the year. She offers valuable insights for executives grappling with the integration of generative AI into their strategies. The conversation, which can be viewed in the embedded video below, took place in anticipation of VB Transform, an annual networking event dedicated to AI and data for enterprise tech decision-makers.
Transform, set to be held in San Francisco on July 11 and 12, will delve into generative AI, exploring how organizations are adapting to this emerging trend. Tan is a regular speaker at the conference. In July, fellow Wayfair executive Wilco Schulz-Mahlendorf, director of data science, will provide further updates on the company’s foray into generative AI.
Wayfair’s take on the promise of generative AI
To ensure a thoughtful approach to generative AI, Wayfair first established a cross-functional council comprising data scientists, engineers, marketers and legal experts. This collaborative effort addressed potential risks and privacy concerns while exploring the technology’s potential applications. The council organized generative AI into three primary categories:
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Long-term disruption opportunities: Wayfair’s forward-thinking team, Wayfair Next, focuses on the big, future potential impacts of the emerging technology. It developed proof-of-concept projects in areas such as text and imagery generation. (Wayfair’s Schulz-Mahlendorf will share more on this at Transform.)
Near-term opportunities: The council also explored how generative AI could enhance customer service, with an emphasis on maintaining a human touch. While incorporating AI-generated suggestions, Wayfair ensures that agents have the final say in crafting responses to customers. The company also set out to use the technology to optimize marketing copy and supplier content.
Everyday enablers: Wayfair recognized that generative AI could prove valuable in day-to-day operations, for example assisting engineers in coding more efficiently.
To keep a finger on the pulse of emerging trends and best practices, Tan regularly meets with a network of fellow CTOs. By sharing their insights and experiences, the group ensures that they are collectively on the cutting edge. Tan says most members are at roughly the same point on their generative AI journey, though some may be a month or so ahead in areas such as risk assessment and navigating licensing complexities.
Addressing licensing concerns, Tan acknowledges the need to strike a balance between utilizing APIs from closed large language models provided by partners like OpenAI and using open-source models trained on proprietary data. While the former offer a quicker route to market, the latter require a greater investment but can deliver a competitive edge through differentiation.
Like everyone else, Wayfair is in the initial stages of its generative AI journey. But Wayfair’s pragmatic approach to generative AI offers a thoughtful blueprint for businesses navigating the uncharted waters of this groundbreaking technology, striking a balance between embracing innovation and preserving core values. We look forward to further updates about Wayfair’s story from Schulz-Mahlendorf at the upcoming Transform. His insights will be one of the scores of conversations at Transform about this evolving response by enterprise to the promises and challenges posed by generative AI. Register now to participate in the conversation.
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