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Amazon’s CTO built a meeting summary app for some reason

Amazon CTO Werner Vogels, a multi-million dollar man, bought out the small apartment in the center of Amsterdam where he had been living during the COVID-19 pandemic Airbnb – How to spend his days? On the surface: Building an AI-powered meeting summary app. Go figure it out.

In a post on Vogels’ personal blog this week, he detailed Distill, an open source application he developed with his “OCTO” (Office of the Chief Technology Officer) team to transcribe and summarize their conference calls. Distill records meeting recordings (formats such as MP3, FLAC, and WAV), analyzes them, and generates summaries and to-do lists. It can optionally output that summary and list to platforms like Slack through custom integrations.

Sample summary from Vogel’s Distill Meeting Summarizer, powered by Amazon technology.
Image Source: distillation

As one would expect from an Amazon CTO app, Distill clearly relies on paid Amazon products and services to do the heavy computing work. AWS Transcribe performs Distill’s transcription; Amazon S3 provides storage for the meeting audio files; and Bedrock, Amazon’s generative AI development suite, handles the summarization.

But why create a meeting summary when there are countless tools that serve the purpose? Well, I have to imagine what Voges was thinking, why not? After all, he had plenty of resources at his disposal and enough spare time to work on side programming projects. According to the blog, he has tried porting Distill’s code from Python to Rust. Being a CTO is a great job if you’re qualified.

One unique thing about Distill is that it allows you to choose which AI model will perform the meeting summary. By default, it’s Sonnet, the mid-range model in Anthropic’s Claude 3 series. (Amazon’s large stake in Anthropic may have something to do with this design decision.) But any model hosted in Bedrock can be run, such as Meta’s Llama 3 and models from AI startups Mistral, AI21 Labs, and Cohere.

Vogels does not guarantee that Distill will not make errors.

“Remember, AI is not perfect,” he wrote. “Some of the summaries we returned… had errors and required manual adjustments. But that’s okay because it still speeds up our process. It’s just a reminder that we still have to be discerning and engaged in the process. Critical Thinking It’s as important now as ever.”

I think having to “engage” in summarization kind of defeats the point of an automatic summarizer. You might as well hire a stenographer. But you’ll never find Vogels badmouthing the technology his employer sells. I bet that’s why he’s still the CTO.

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