Responsible AI in the generative era

Generative AI raises new challenges in defining, measuring, and mitigating concerns about fairness, toxicity, and intellectual property, among other things. But work has started on the solutions.

In recent years, and even recent months, there have been rapid and dramatic advances in the technology known as generative AI. Generative AI models are trained on inconceivably massive collections of text, code, images, and other rich data. They are now able to produce, on demand, coherent and compelling stories, news summaries, poems, lyrics, paintings, and programs. The potential practical uses of generative AI are only just beginning to be understood but are likely to be manifold and revolutionary and to include writing aids, creative content production and refinement, personal assistants, copywriting, code generation, and much more.

Kearns with caption
Michael Kearns, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania and an Amazon Scholar.

There is thus considerable excitement about the transformations and new opportunities that generative AI may bring. There are also understandable concerns — some of them new twists on those of traditional responsible AI (such as fairness and privacy) and some of them genuinely new (such as the mimicry of artistic or literary styles). In this essay, I survey these concerns and how they might be addressed over time.

I will focus primarily on technical approaches to the risks, while acknowledging that social, legal, regulatory, and policy mechanisms will also have important roles to play. At Amazon, our hope is that such a balanced approach can significantly reduce the risks, while still preserving much of the excitement and usefulness of generative AI.

What is generative AI?

To understand what generative AI is and how it works, it is helpful to begin with the example of large language models (LLMs). Imagine the thought experiment in which we start with some sentence fragment like Once upon a time, there was a great ..., and we poll people on what word they would add next. Some might say wizard, others might say queen, monster, and so on. We would also expect that given the fairy tale nature of the fragment, words such as apricot or fork would be rather unlikely suggestions.

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If we poll a large enough population, a probability distribution over next words would begin to emerge. We could then randomly pick a word from that distribution (say wizard), and now our sequence would be one word longer — Once upon a time, there was a great wizard ... — and we could again poll for the next word. In this manner we could theoretically generate entire stories, and if we restarted the whole process, the crowd would produce an entirely different narrative due to the inherent randomness.

Dramatic advances in machine learning have effectively made this thought experiment a reality. But instead of polling crowds of people, we use a model to predict likely next words, one trained on a massive collection of documents — public collections of fiction and nonfiction, Wikipedia entries and news articles, transcripts of human dialogue, open-source code, and much more.

LLM objective.gif
An example of how a language model uses context to predict the next word in a sentence.

If the training data contains enough sentences beginning Once upon a time, there was a great …, it will be easy to sample plausible next words for our initial fragment. But LLMs can generalize and create as well, and not always in ways that humans might expect. The model might generate Once upon a time, there was a great storm based on occurrences of tremendous storm in the training data, combined with the learned synonymy of great and tremendous. This completion can happen despite great storm never appearing verbatim in the training data and despite the completions more expected by humans (like wizard and queen).

The resulting models are just as complex as their training data, often described by hundreds of billions of numbers (or parameters, in machine learning parlance), hence the “large” in LLM. LLMs have become so good that not only do they consistently generate grammatically correct text, but they create content that is coherent and often compelling, matching the tone and style of the fragments they were given (known as prompts). Start them with a fairy tale beginning, and they generate fairy tales; give them what seems to be the start of a news article, and they write a news-like article. The latest LLMs can even follow instructions rather than simply extend a prompt, as in Write lyrics about the Philadelphia Eagles to the tune of the Beatles song “Get Back”.

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Generative AI isn’t limited to text, and many models combine language and images, as in Create a painting of a skateboarding cat in the style of Andy Warhol. The techniques for building such systems are a bit more complex than for LLMs and involve learning a model of proximity between text and images, which can be done using data sources like captioned photos. If there are enough images containing cats that have the word cat in the caption, the model will capture the proximity between the word and pictures of cats.

The examples above suggest that generative AI is a form of entertainment, but many potential practical uses are also beginning to emerge, including generative AI as a writing tool (Shorten the following paragraphs and improve their grammar), for productivity (Extract the action items from this meeting transcript), for creative content (Propose logo designs for a startup building a dog-walking app), for simulating focus groups (Which of the following two product descriptions would Florida retirees find more appealing?), for programming (Give me a code snippet to sort a list of numbers), and many others.

So the excitement over the current and potential applications of generative AI is palpable and growing. But generative AI also gives rise to some new risks and challenges in the responsible use of AI and machine learning. And the likely eventual ubiquity of generative models in everyday life and work amplifies the stakes in addressing these concerns thoughtfully and effectively.

So what’s the problem?

The “generative” in generative AI refers to the fact that the technology can produce open-ended content that varies with repeated tries. This is in contrast to more traditional uses of machine learning, which typically solve very focused and narrow prediction problems.

For example, consider training a model for consumer lending that predicts whether an applicant would successfully repay a loan. Such a model might be trained using the lender’s data on past loans, each record containing applicant information (work history, financial information such as income, savings, and credit score, and educational background) along with whether the loan was repaid or defaulted.

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The typical goal would be to train a model that was as accurate as possible in predicting payment/default and then apply it to future applications to guide or make lending decisions. Such a model makes only lending outcome predictions and cannot generate fairy tales, improve grammar, produce whimsical images, write code, and so on. Compared to generative AI, it is indeed a very narrow and limited model.

But the very limitations also make the application of certain dimensions of responsible AI much more manageable. Consider the goal of making our lending model fair, which would typically be taken to mean the absence of demographic bias. For example, we might want to make sure that the error rate of the predictions of our model (and it generally will make errors, since even human loan officers are imperfect in predicting who will repay) is approximately equal on men and women. Or we might more specifically ask that the false-rejection rate — the frequency with which the model predicts default by an applicant who is in fact creditworthy — be the same across gender groups.

Once armed with this definition of fairness, we can seek to enforce it in the training process. In other words, instead of finding a model that minimizes the overall error rate, we find one that does so under the additional condition that the false-rejection rates on men and women are approximately equal (say, within 1% of each other). We might also want to apply the same notion of fairness to other demographic properties (such as young, middle aged, and elderly). But the point is that we can actually give reasonable and targeted definitions of fairness and develop training algorithms that enforce them.

It is also easy to audit a given model for its adherence to such notions of fairness (for instance, by estimating the error rates on both male and female applicants). Finally, when the predictive task is so targeted, we have much more control over the training data: we train on historical lending decisions only, and not on arbitrarily rich troves of general language, image, and code data.

Now consider the problem of making sure an LLM is fair. What might we even mean by this? Well, taking a cue from our lending model, we might ask that the LLM treat men and women equally. For instance, consider a prompt like Dr. Hanson studied the patient’s chart carefully, and then … . In service of fairness, we might ask that in the completions generated by an LLM, Dr. Hanson be assigned male and female pronouns with roughly equal frequency. We might argue that to do otherwise perpetuates the stereotype that doctors are typically male.

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But then should we not also do this for mentions of nurses, firefighters, accountants, pilots, carpenters, attorneys, and professors? It’s clear that measuring just this one narrow notion of fairness will quickly become unwieldy. And it isn’t even obvious in what contexts it should be enforced. What if the prompt described Dr. Hanson as having a beard? What about the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA)? Should mention of a WNBA player in a prompt elicit male pronouns half the time?

Defining fairness for LLMs is even murkier than we suggest above, again because of the open-ended content they generate. Let’s turn from pronoun choices to tone. What if an LLM, when generating content about a woman, uses an ever-so-slightly more negative tone (in choice of words and level of enthusiasm) than when generating content about a man? Again, even detecting and quantifying such differences would be a very challenging technical problem. The field of sentiment analysis in natural-language processing might suggest some possibilities, but currently, it focuses on much coarser distinctions in narrower settings, such as distinguishing positive from negative sentiment in business news articles about particular corporations.

So one of the prices we pay for the rich, creative, open-ended content that generative AI can produce is that it becomes commensurately harder (compared to traditional predictive ML) to define, measure, and enforce fairness.

From fairness to privacy

In a similar vein, let’s consider privacy concerns. It is of course important that a consumer lending model not leak information about the financial or other data of the individual applicants in the training data. (One way this can happen is if model predictions are accompanied by confidence scores; if the model expresses 100% confidence that a loan application will default, it’s likely because that application, with a default outcome, was in the training data.) For this kind of traditional, more narrow ML, there are now techniques for mitigating such leaks by making sure model outputs are not overly dependent on any particular piece of training data.

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But the open-ended nature of generative AI broadens the set of concerns from verbatim leaks of training data to more subtle copying phenomena. For example, if a programmer has written some code using certain variable names and then asks an LLM for help writing a subroutine, the LLM may generate code from its training data, but with the original variable names replaced with those chosen by the programmer. So the generated code is not literally in the training data but is different only in a cosmetic way.

There are defenses against these challenges, including curation of training data to exclude private information, and techniques to detect similarity of code passages. But more subtle forms of replication are also possible, and as I discuss below, this eventually bleeds into settings where generative AI reproduces the “style” of content in its training data.

And while traditional ML has begun developing techniques for explaining the decisions or predictions of trained models, they don’t always transfer to generative AI, in part because current generative models sometimes produce content that simply cannot be explained (such as scientific citations that don’t exist, something I’ll discuss shortly).

The special challenges of responsible generative AI

So the usual concerns of responsible AI become more difficult for generative AI. But generative AI also gives rise to challenges that simply don’t exist for predictive models that are more narrow. Let’s consider some of these.

Toxicity. A primary concern with generative AI is the possibility of generating content (whether it be text, images, or other modalities) that is offensive, disturbing, or otherwise inappropriate. Once again, it is hard to even define and scope the problem. The subjectivity involved in determining what constitutes toxic content is an additional challenge, and the boundary between restricting toxic content and censorship may be murky and context- and culture-dependent. Should quotations that would be considered offensive out of context be suppressed if they are clearly labeled as quotations? What about opinions that may be offensive to some users but are clearly labeled as opinions? Technical challenges include offensive content that may be worded in a very subtle or indirect fashion, without the use of obviously inflammatory language.

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Hallucinations. Considering the next-word distribution sampling employed by LLMs, it is perhaps not surprising that in more objective or factual use cases, LLMs are susceptible to what are sometimes called hallucinations — assertions or claims that sound plausible but are verifiably incorrect. For example, a common phenomenon with current LLMs is creating nonexistent scientific citations. If one of these LLMs is prompted with the request Tell me about some papers by Michael Kearns, it is not actually searching for legitimate citations but generating ones from the distribution of words associated with that author. The result will be realistic titles and topics in the area of machine learning, but not real articles, and they may include plausible coauthors but not actual ones.

In a similar vein, prompts for financial news stories result not in a search of (say) Wall Street Journal articles but news articles fabricated by the LLM using the lexicon of finance. Note that in our fairy tale generation scenario, this kind of creativity was harmless and even desirable. But current LLMs have no levers that let users differentiate between “creativity on” and “creativity off” use cases.

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Intellectual property. A problem with early LLMs was their tendency to occasionally produce text or code passages that were verbatim regurgitations of parts of their training data, resulting in privacy and other concerns. But even improvements in this regard have not prevented reproductions of training content that are more ambiguous and nuanced. Consider the aforementioned prompt for a multimodal generative model Create a painting of a skateboarding cat in the style of Andy Warhol. If the model is able to do so in a convincing yet still original manner because it was trained on actual Warhol images, objections to such mimicry may arise.

Plagiarism and cheating. The creative capabilities of generative AI give rise to worries that it will be used to write college essays, writing samples for job applications, and other forms of cheating or illicit copying. Debates on this topic are happening at universities and many other institutions, and attitudes vary widely. Some are in favor of explicitly forbidding any use of generative AI in settings where content is being graded or evaluated, while others argue that educational practices must adapt to, and even embrace, the new technology. But the underlying challenge of verifying that a given piece of content was authored by a person is likely to present concerns in many contexts.

Disruption of the nature of work. The proficiency with which generative AI is able to create compelling text and images, perform well on standardized tests, write entire articles on given topics, and successfully summarize or improve the grammar of provided articles has created some anxiety that some professions may be replaced or seriously disrupted by the technology. While this may be premature, it does seem that generative AI will have a transformative effect on many aspects of work, allowing many tasks previously beyond automation to be delegated to machines.

What can we do?

The challenges listed above may seem daunting, in part because of how unfamiliar they are compared to those of previous generations of AI. But as technologists and society learn more about generative AI and its uses and limitations, new science and new policies are already being created to address those challenges.

For toxicity and fairness, careful curation of training data can provide some improvements. After all, if the data doesn’t contain any offensive or biased words or phrases, an LLM simply won’t be able to generate them. But this approach requires that we identify those offensive phrases in advance and are certain that there are absolutely no contexts in which we would want them in the output. Use-case-specific testing can also help address fairness concerns — for instance, before generative AI is used in high-risk domains such as consumer lending, the model could be tested for fairness for that particular application, much as we might do for more narrow predictive models.

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For less targeted notions of toxicity, a natural approach is to train what we might call guardrail models that detect and filter out unwanted content in the training data, in input prompts, and in generated outputs. Such models require human-annotated training data in which varying types and degrees of toxicity or bias are identified, which the model can generalize from. In general, it is easier to control the output of a generative model than it is to curate the training data and prompts, given the extreme generality of the tasks we intend to address.

For the challenge of producing high-fidelity content free of hallucinations, an important first step is to educate users about how generative AI actually works, so there is no expectation that the citations or news-like stories produced are always genuine or factually correct. Indeed, some current LLMs, when pressed on their inability to quote actual citations, will tell the user that they are just language models that don’t verify their content with external sources. Such disclaimers should be more frequent and clear. And the specific case of hallucinated citations could be mitigated by augmenting LLMs with independent, verified citation databases and similar sources, using approaches such as retrieval-augmented generation. Another nascent but intriguing approach is to develop methods for attributing generated outputs to particular pieces of training data, allowing users to assess the validity of those sources. This could help with explainability as well.

Concerns around intellectual property are likely to be addressed over time by a mixture of technology, policy, and legal mechanisms. In the near term, science is beginning to emerge around various notions of model disgorgement, in which protected content or its effects on generative outputs are reduced or removed. One technology that might eventually prove relevant is differential privacy, in which a model is trained in a way that ensures that any particular piece of training data has negligible effects on the outputs the model subsequently produces.

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Another approach is so-called sharding approaches, which divide the training data into smaller portions on which separate submodels are trained; the submodels are then combined to form the overall model. In order to undo the effects of any particular item of data on the overall model, we need only remove it from its shard and retrain that submodel, rather than retraining the entire model (which for generative AI would be sufficiently expensive as to be prohibitive).

Finally, we can consider filtering or blocking approaches, where before presentation to the user, generated content is explicitly compared to protected content in the training data or elsewhere and suppressed (or replaced) if it is too similar. Limiting the number of times any specific piece of content appears in the training data also proves helpful in reducing verbatim outputs.

Some interesting approaches to discouraging cheating using generative AI are already under development. One is to simply train a model to detect whether a given (say) text was produced by a human or by a generative model. A potential drawback is that this creates an arms race between detection models and generative AI, and since the purpose of generative AI is to produce high-quality content plausibly generated by a human, it’s not clear that detection methods will succeed in the long run.

An intriguing alternative is watermarking or fingerprinting approaches that would be implemented by the developers of generative models themselves. For example, since at each step LLMs are drawing from the distribution over the next word given the text so far, we can divide the candidate words into “red” and “green” lists that are roughly 50% of the probability each; then we can have the LLM draw only from the green list. Since the words on the green list are not known to users, the likelihood that a human would produce a 10-word sentence that also drew only from the green lists is ½ raised to the 10th power, which is only about 0.0009. In this way we can view all-green content as providing a virtual proof of LLM generation. Note that the LLM developers would need to provide such proofs or certificates as part of their service offering.

LLM watermarking.AI.gif
At each step, the model secretly divides the possible next words into green and red lists. The next word is then sampled only from the green list.
LLM watermarking.human.gif
A human generating a sentence is unaware of the division into green and red lists and is thus very likely to choose a sequence that mixes green and red words. Since, on long sentences, the likelihood of a human choosing an all-green sequence is vanishingly small, we can view all-green sentences as containing a proof they were generated by AI.

Disruption to work as we know it does not have any obvious technical defenses, and opinions vary widely on where things will settle. Clearly, generative AI could be an effective productivity tool in many professional settings, and this will at a minimum alter the current division of labor between humans and machines. It’s also possible that the technology will open up existing occupations to a wider community (a recent and culturally specific but not entirely ludicrous quip on social media was “English is the new programming language”, a nod to LLM code generation abilities) or even create new forms of employment, such as prompt engineer (a topic with its own Wikipedia entry, created in just February of this year).

But perhaps the greatest defense against concerns over generative AI may come from the eventual specialization of use cases. Right now, generative AI is being treated as a fascinating, open-ended playground in which our expectations and goals are unclear. As we have discussed, this open-endedness and the plethora of possible uses are major sources of the challenges to responsible AI I have outlined.

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But soon more applied and focused uses will emerge, like some of those I suggested earlier. For instance, consider using an LLM as a virtual focus group — creating prompts that describe hypothetical individuals and their demographic properties (age, gender, occupation, location, etc.) and then asking the LLM which of two described products they might prefer.

In this application, we might worry much less about censoring content and much more about removing any even remotely toxic output. And we might choose not to eradicate the correlations between gender and the affinity for certain products in service of fairness, since such correlations are valuable to the marketer. The point is that the more specific our goals for generative AI are, the easier it is to make sensible context-dependent choices; our choices become more fraught and difficult when our expectations are vague.

Finally, we note that end user education and training will play a crucial role in the productive and safe use of generative AI. As the potential uses and harms of generative AI become better and more widely understood, users will augment some of the defenses I have outlined above with their own common sense.


Generative AI has stoked both legitimate enthusiasm and legitimate fears. I have attempted to partially survey the landscape of concerns and to propose forward-looking approaches for addressing them. It should be emphasized that addressing responsible-AI risks in the generative age will be an iterative process: there will be no “getting it right” once and for all. This landscape is sure to shift, with changes to both the technology and our attitudes toward it; the only constant will be the necessity of balancing the enthusiasm with practical and effective checks on the concerns.

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AWS AI/ML is looking for world class scientists and engineers to join its AI Research and Education group working on foundation models, large-scale representation learning, and distributed learning methods and systems. At AWS AI/ML you will invent, implement, and deploy state of the art machine learning algorithms and systems. You will build prototypes and innovate on new representation learning solutions. You will interact closely with our customers and with the academic and research communities. You will be at the heart of a growing and exciting focus area for AWS and work with other acclaimed engineers and world famous scientists. Large-scale foundation models have been the powerhouse in many of the recent advancements in computer vision, natural language processing, automatic speech recognition, recommendation systems, and time series modeling. Developing such models requires not only skillful modeling in individual modalities, but also understanding of how to synergistically combine them, and how to scale the modeling methods to learn with huge models and on large datasets. Join us to work as an integral part of a team that has diverse experiences in this space. We actively work on these areas: * Hardware-informed efficient model architecture, training objective and curriculum design * Distributed training, accelerated optimization methods * Continual learning, multi-task/meta learning * Reasoning, interactive learning, reinforcement learning * Robustness, privacy, model watermarking * Model compression, distillation, pruning, sparsification, quantization About Us Inclusive Team Culture Here at AWS, we embrace our differences. We are committed to furthering our culture of inclusion. We have ten employee-led affinity groups, reaching 40,000 employees in over 190 chapters globally. We have innovative benefit offerings, and host annual and ongoing learning experiences, including our Conversations on Race and Ethnicity (CORE) and AmazeCon (gender diversity) conferences. Amazon’s culture of inclusion is reinforced within our 14 Leadership Principles, which remind team members to seek diverse perspectives, learn and be curious, and earn trust. Work/Life Balance Our team puts a high value on work-life balance. It isn’t about how many hours you spend at home or at work; it’s about the flow you establish that brings energy to both parts of your life. We believe striking the right balance between your personal and professional life is critical to life-long happiness and fulfillment. We offer flexibility in working hours and encourage you to find your own balance between your work and personal lives. Mentorship & Career Growth Our team is dedicated to supporting new members. We have a broad mix of experience levels and tenures, and we’re building an environment that celebrates knowledge sharing and mentorship. Our senior members enjoy one-on-one mentoring and thorough, but kind, code reviews. We care about your career growth and strive to assign projects based on what will help each team member develop into a better-rounded engineer and enable them to take on more complex tasks in the future.
US, WA, Seattle
Do you want to join an innovative team of scientists who use machine learning to help Amazon provide the best experience to our Selling Partners by automatically understanding and addressing their challenges, needs and opportunities? Do you want to build advanced algorithmic systems that are powered by state-of-art ML, such as Natural Language Processing, Large Language Models, Deep Learning, Computer Vision and Causal Modeling, to seamlessly engage with Sellers? Are you excited by the prospect of analyzing and modeling terabytes of data and creating cutting edge algorithms to solve real world problems? Do you like to build end-to-end business solutions and directly impact the profitability of the company and experience of our customers? Do you like to innovate and simplify? If yes, then you may be a great fit to join the Selling Partner Experience Science team. Key job responsibilities Use statistical and machine learning techniques to create the next generation of the tools that empower Amazon's Selling Partners to succeed. Design, develop and deploy highly innovative models to interact with Sellers and delight them with solutions. Work closely with teams of scientists and software engineers to drive real-time model implementations and deliver novel and highly impactful features. Establish scalable, efficient, automated processes for large scale data analyses, model development, model validation and model implementation. Research and implement novel machine learning and statistical approaches. Lead strategic initiatives to employ the most recent advances in ML in a fast-paced, experimental environment. Drive the vision and roadmap for how ML can continually improve Selling Partner experience. About the team Selling Partner Experience Science (SPeXSci) is a growing team of scientists, engineers and product leaders engaged in the research and development of the next generation of ML-driven technology to empower Amazon's Selling Partners to succeed. We draw from many science domains, from Natural Language Processing to Computer Vision to Optimization to Economics, to create solutions that seamlessly and automatically engage with Sellers, solve their problems, and help them grow. Focused on collaboration, innovation and strategic impact, we work closely with other science and technology teams, product and operations organizations, and with senior leadership, to transform the Selling Partner experience.
US, WA, Seattle
The AWS AI Labs team has a world-leading team of researchers and academics, and we are looking for world-class colleagues to join us and make the AI revolution happen. Our team of scientists have developed the algorithms and models that power AWS computer vision services such as Amazon Rekognition and Amazon Textract. As part of the team, we expect that you will develop innovative solutions to hard problems, and publish your findings at peer reviewed conferences and workshops. AWS is the world-leading provider of cloud services, has fostered the creation and growth of countless new businesses, and is a positive force for good. Our customers bring problems which will give Applied Scientists like you endless opportunities to see your research have a positive and immediate impact in the world. You will have the opportunity to partner with technology and business teams to solve real-world problems, have access to virtually endless data and computational resources, and to world-class engineers and developers that can help bring your ideas into the world. Our research themes include, but are not limited to: few-shot learning, transfer learning, unsupervised and semi-supervised methods, active learning and semi-automated data annotation, large scale image and video detection and recognition, face detection and recognition, OCR and scene text recognition, document understanding, 3D scene and layout understanding, and geometric computer vision. For this role, we are looking for scientist who have experience working in the intersection of vision and language. We are located in Seattle, Pasadena, Palo Alto (USA) and in Haifa and Tel Aviv (Israel).
GB, London
Are you excited about applying economic models and methods using large data sets to solve real world business problems? Then join the Economic Decision Science (EDS) team. EDS is an economic science team based in the EU Stores business. The teams goal is to optimize and automate business decision making in the EU business and beyond. An internship at Amazon is an opportunity to work with leading economic researchers on influencing needle-moving business decisions using incomparable datasets and tools. It is an opportunity for PhD students in Economics or related fields. We are looking for detail-oriented, organized, and responsible individuals who are eager to learn how to work with large and complicated data sets. Knowledge of econometrics, as well as basic familiarity with Stata, R, or Python is necessary. Experience with SQL would be a plus. As an Economics Intern, you will be working in a fast-paced, cross-disciplinary team of researchers who are pioneers in the field. You will take on complex problems, and work on solutions that either leverage existing academic and industrial research, or utilize your own out-of-the-box pragmatic thinking. In addition to coming up with novel solutions and prototypes, you may even need to deliver these to production in customer facing products. Roughly 85% of previous intern cohorts have converted to full time economics employment at Amazon.