“If you don’t have an AI strategy you are going to die in the world that’s coming.” That’s the warning from eBay president and CEO Devin Wenig.

Wenig, who was speaking during Shoptalk in Las Vegas yesterday, made it clear that when it comes to artificial intelligence eBay wasn’t going to be late to the party.

“Mobile was a really important platform that people didn’t see in 2007 and there are a couple more critical platforms that if you are not fully embracing now when it’s just a little early you are going to be in trouble in three years from now,” he said.

“It’s really buzzy but that doesn’t make it wrong. It is absolutely critical.”

For eBay, AI means delivering a more personalised shopping experience, helping surface the most relevant items from eBay’s vast product catalogue to the right shopper.

“I think everybody understands how broad our inventory is – a billion items – we’ve got to organise that better. That’s the march we’ve been on,” Wenig said.

This week eBay announced it will be rolling out a new homepage that is powered by the replatforming work the company has been doing.

“Using structured data — a transformative step to drive discoverability of our vast inventory, insights into supply and demand, pricing trends, among other things — and artificial intelligence, we’re creating a shopping experience that is tailored to each eBay user’s interests, passions and shopping history,” Wenig said in a blog post.

Ebay has acquired three AI companies in the last year and over the last two years has been busily hiring data analysts and engineers to build algorithms “that look into our marketplace and extract patterns from the noise.”

Wenig admits it will still take time to deliver a unique shopping experience at an individual level.

“I think the promise of personalisation in our industry has kind of been a let down, really. There’s been more heat than light, but that doesn’t mean breakthroughs aren’t coming, they really are,” he said.

Not betting the company on bots

Ebay has launched eBay ShopBot, an AI-powered personal shopping concierge on Facebook Messenger that helps people find the best deals from eBay’s listings via chat.

“I have absolutely no idea whether shopping will move into bots five years from now. I do know that we are learning a lot. I do know that we want eBay to be in the fabric of where people spend their time,” Wenig said.

“We are learning about AI, we’re learning about conversational commerce, we’re learning about what converts when we are out in Facebook and Messenger and you’ll see us on a bunch of other platforms this year as well.”

He admits it’s an uncertain future.

“Does that mean three years from now people are going to converse when they buy something? Maybe, I don’t know, we’re not betting the company on that. What we are betting on is that we’ve got to be distributed, we’ve got to be smart, we’ve got to be a data company and that’s how we are going to differentiate. So for me, this is one of many important experiments that we’ll find out if consumers want to go there.”

Wenig added it is easy to be skeptical of technologies like bots becase they haven’t reached “the end state.”

“I think that skepticism is fine but there’s almost no way that three years from now AI won’t deliver a more deeply personal experience and I’m not going to be late. I’m not going to be late, I’d much rather be early than late.”

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