This is not where any of us were at a year ago. We’re in a whole new place. The whole world has changed. It's been amazing.
A welcome validation of sorts by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff of my thesis earlier in the week that so much has changed since last year’s Dreamforce, not least the rise of generative AI to the top of the tech agenda. It’s been a fast-moving ride, as Benioff acknowledges:
No-one is ready for AI. I think that every economy is kind of really just wrestling with what we've all seen in the last six or nine months. I'm sure that everyone has the same experience that I had. The first time you get on ChatGPT or once you experience a true multi-modal model, like Bard, it's like a 'wow!' experience.
AI, as diginomica’s coverage of Dreamforce this week shows, has dominated this week’s conference agenda. One of the most intriguing sessions was Benioff’s fireside chat with Sam Altman, during which the OpenAI wunderkind floated the idea that a lot of the value of generative AI was related to the fact that they do hallucinate.
Benioff, of course, had just hours earlier passionately railed against the “lies” that are hallucinations in his opening keynote. Presumably he doesn’t agree with Altman then? His response comes with a wry smile:
I think he said that they're a feature, not a bug. I wrote that down so that I had it for my future responses.
More seriously, he argues:
We're obviously at the beginning of Artificial Intelligence. This is the nascent stage We've kind of come through this predictive world, which is really based on Deep Learning...I think the big breakthrough that happened was, we saw that just by expanding and making this larger, it all of a sudden got a lot smarter, and adding these models is so powerful. So we're just at the beginning of that breakthrough.
It's a lot like ChatGPT or Bard, these are like toddlers right now, but they're going to grow up very fast, and they're going to go to high school. And when they get to high school versus where they are now, it's going to be a huge leap. I think that's what we're all going to witness and in very short order. That is what I think is really amazing about this moment in Artificial Intelligence. I think we're witnessing history being made.
But are hallucinations still a bad thing? The answer is yes, it seems, but there are other options:
We know that hallucinations is a major issue for a lot of these Large Language Models. Will that get dissipated over time? Some people say yes, some people say no, some people say it's just kind of part of the algorithms. On the smaller models, you don't get the same level [of hallucinations]. There may be a movement more to small models, especially for vertical applications. You don't have to have just Large Language Models to do the kind of work that we're seeing done. It can be a lot of small model development as well as the larger companies.
In terms of those companies, there’s a potential AI gold rush underway, notes Benioff:
A lot of entrepreneurs are going to get creative right now. We've seen thousands of companies get created just in the last nine months with a wave of venture capital really unlike we have ever seen, one that was kind of on the sidelines since 2021 when valuations hit those super-high peaks. Now I think everybody realizes, ‘Wow, a lot of these companies can really scale and move forward and go very quickly’. A good example is Hugging Face. This is an unbelievable company and the revenue is real, the usage is real, the adoption, the significance to the future, the industry, all of these things.
In fact, Salesforce Ventures led Hugging Face’s latest round of funding. Others should take note and get in on the action, advises Benioff:
I tried my best in the keynote to inspire attendees to look at the models and the technologies that we're delivering at the show and to go build the next great company. A lot of software in our industry has to be rewritten now. I know we're rewriting all of our products. We think that everybody should be rewriting their products and looking at every vertical and going after it.
But it's complicated, because how do you build trust? How do you build a data cloud in and AI in these things and deliver the enterprise security, reliability availability, that our customers are going to demand? That's the opportunity and I think people who are here at the show have an incredible moment to seize, which is just doesn't come along very often.
We all watched it when it happened with cloud in the late 90s. That's when I started Salesforce. It happened with social, it happened with mobile, and it's happening now with AI. We all should be rooting these folks on. There's going to be a lot of success, and hopefully a lot of failure, because we should see some great new companies and new technologies emerge out of this.
San Francisco, Salesforce’s home town, is benefitting from this, he adds:
The best thing going on for San Francisco is we are the number one AI city in the world. Eight of the top 20 AI companies are right here. In commercial real estate, the vacancy rate is rapidly being eliminated because all these amazing companies are coming in taking the space. I think that is a huge accelerator that the city needs to ride. And if you haven't seen the GDP numbers, we're at record GDP levels in the city. Small countries are envious of the growth in San Francisco. They wish they had this kind of capability, intellectual capital, human resources.
The San Francisco question
That’s the upsell. On the other hand, Benioff attracted headlines prior to Dreamforce this year for raising the possibility that the so-called ‘doom loop’ that the city has suffered in recent years might lead to him taking the event to another location if conference attendees were impacted by it.
In fact, the much talked about (genuine) problems with drug abuse and homelessness aren’t particularly in evidence around the Moscone convention center. This has not gone unnoticed, it seems, as Benioff says:
The way to think about this is that when the city of San Francisco wants to look good, and get shiny and clean and safe, it knows how to do it. It looks great. It's very safe right now. It’s moving in the right direction. But if they can do it for Dreamforce, why can't they do it every day? That's my point.
It’s an argument that means a great deal to him as he goes on:
I think that we have to enforce our laws. We're down to 1400 cops, down from 2000 under [former] Mayor Lee. We really need to get the police force back to where it was. And we have to continue to work on the other systemic issues that have been going on for a long time in the city. My grandfather was a Supervisor in the 50s in San Francisco. He'd visit the homeless shelters on Market Street. Homelessness remains a major issue in our city. We've got to continue to directly address it. It's chronic, it just keeps coming back. We just have to keep at it and working on it. There's so many things we can do with housing and there's so many things we can do in the city.
If the city applies itself, it can be amazing, but unfortunately the city doesn't always take itself as seriously as it does during Dreamforce. Every day should be Dreamforce!
I'm just having the best time I ever had right now.
Benioff has quite clearly had a good week after what was a more difficult start to 2023, with its layoffs and activist investor issues. Dreamforce is always cited as the highlight of his year, as well it might be. This year’s gathering has been particularly focused and well-executed with some strong and clearly articulated messaging. Hell, they even brought the keynote in on time.