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May 19, 2023, 11:55am EDT
techbusiness

Airbnb’s Jay Carney on navigating AI and the post-pandemic world

Jay Carney
Getty Images/Thierry Monasse/Corbis
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The Scene

Jay Carney was a journalist, a presidential press secretary, and for years helped Amazon navigate intense scrutiny and anti-tech sentiment.

He recently became global head of policy at Airbnb, which is also no stranger to regulatory pressure. I spoke with Carney about how the company is adjusting to life after the COVID-19 pandemic and how it might — or might not — incorporate the latest AI technology.

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The View From Jay Carney

Q: One of the first things I did when Bing Chat came out was try to search for a vacation rental across the entire web. It was actually pretty good. How is Airbnb thinking about that? Would you want to stop those types of AI-powered searches and is it even possible?

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A: I don’t know that it’s possible or that we’d stop it. Before generative AI, there were services out there scraping data from Airbnb. What we will do, and can do, is embrace AI ourselves and find ways to make it better for guests and hosts. It’s early days and it’s all hypothetical. But yes, we are diving in and exploring ways that we can leverage this kind of AI to enhance customer service and enhance the search experience.

Everyone recognizes this as one of those moments that’s transformational. It’s not a question of will you use it or won’t you? It’s like, will you use it or not exist.

Q:  It would not be hard for Airbnb to create a travel-agent type of experience where you’d say ‘this is what I’m looking for.’ Not to ask you to give away your product roadmap, but is that something you think consumers are asking for?

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A: The beauty is it’s such early days that there is no definitive thing on the roadmap. But what you’re describing is, of course, a natural thing to look at. If you think about what it can do, like just reading pictures, right? Images as opposed to text. That can provide so much more information from just the photos that are uploaded that may not be in the text descriptions, but provides more detail about what the listing is like. And then, there’s the broader travel information like neighborhoods, restaurants, etc.

I’m just throwing that out there, but all of it makes sense and we will certainly explore all of it. That’s the beauty of a company that’s no longer a startup, but is still pretty new and has the mentality of innovate, innovate, innovate. It’s not about trying to preserve what you created and fend off competitors. It’s about what’s the next cool thing we can do and that spirit infects the whole company.

Q: I feel like AI has turned every company into a startup again. Do you think it has reinvigorated the industry?

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A: With interest rates and Silicon Valley Bank, things were really drying up. But now with OpenAI and everything, people are just beside themselves with excitement. Obviously, people are going to invest in some crazy ways and not all of it will pay off, but that’s how it works.

Sam [Altman] is super interesting to me. He’s thoughtful and just very aware of all the risks that might be out there. I’ve been around long enough to know that some big promises were made about the internet and social media being the greatest thing for democracy. And people are skeptical. So I think it’s really important for leaders like Sam to be out front about how we have to be super mindful of the risks, involve governments, and have oversight.

It’ll still be a gold rush and there will be bad actors in the space, but I like that there’s somebody like that who’s thoughtful about it, has got this pole position in it, and has sort of become the spokesperson for it.

Q: You’re not wearing that hat anymore, but it will be interesting to see what Amazon does. The race is on. And one thing I’ve always appreciated about Amazon is it’s always willing to try new things and just throw spaghetti against the wall.

A: Jeff’s approach was always ‘don’t bet the company. But make the bets.’ It was probably his biggest focus, in my years, was trying to maintain that startup mentality in a massive company, which was super hard.

Q: There’s going to be this talent rush now on AI. There are layoffs but there’s also the question of how do you get that hot, young AI researcher to come in when they can start their own billion-dollar company tomorrow.

A: Oh it’s happening. If you have that background — and there are a lot of people who probably claim they do but don’t — you’re a very high commodity right now. It helps that we’re popular, and a fun and creative place to work. But it’s still fiercely competitive.

Q: Would you say Airbnb is attracting those people right now?

A: We’re always looking for great talent. But we’re super fortunate. Obviously we’re very cautious as we grow our head count right now. We took our medicine early when the company was super threatened by COVID. And unlike Amazon and others that suddenly had this surge in demand, we didn’t have to go on this hiring spree.

Coming out of it when suddenly growth returned robustly and we had our best year ever last year, that discipline that got created has made the leadership think we want the best people. But we’re not just going to throw people at problems and just hire willy nilly.

Q: So tell me about this new feature, Airbnb Rooms?

A: During the pandemic, while all sorts of different, exciting things happened in terms of travel trends for obvious reasons, Rooms didn’t. People were booking random places away from urban areas and getting away from people. Knock on wood, we’re really coming out of the pandemic around the world and finally, in Asia, too. There’s a return to urban areas and a real surge in interest in Rooms that we hope will grow in the way the rest of the company will grow.

Q: Is affordability one of the drivers for the new Rooms feature?

A: It’s a huge part of the appeal, but it’s not why we did it. The origin of the company wasn’t just to be a travel business or a tech business, but to be a connection business, bringing people together. But affordability is one of the key reasons why people were interested to begin with and we have offerings at every price point.

Q: Before the pandemic, Airbnb had really professionalized. People were buying up properties as investments and becoming mini-hoteliers, which was, to your point, getting away from the original mission. Do you think Airbnb would have done this earlier if it weren’t for the pandemic?

A: It’s a counterfactual that’s hard to imagine because so much would’ve been different at Airbnb. The company has really changed a lot in the last few years. Brian [Chesky] describes the pandemic as an existential experience, where 80% of the revenue was gone in a few weeks. They had to really make some tough decisions and go back to what the core business was.

Q: One of your specialities is the regulatory question. What is the landscape now and what are the challenges for Airbnb?

A: What’s new for me in this experience is how localized everything is. This is a space that’s now become quite regulated and it’s mostly, especially in the United States, done at the local level and municipal level. So that’s the challenge. You can’t be everywhere at once.

We offer a product called City Portal, which is a self-serve mechanism to help municipalities with data and information about Airbnb and help them with compliance. We’re in something like 200 countries, so that’s why you have to systematize it.

And that’s another reason you want to go out and engage on that front, instead of taking the approach that some companies did, which is wait until the government calls.

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