Marissa Mayer on the AI search race, technology fears, and her biggest Yahoo regrets

The former Yahoo chief says she wishes she had acquired Hulu instead of Tumblr.
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Marissa Mayer

7 min read

After a decades-long career at two of Silicon Valley’s biggest names, Marissa Mayer is setting her sights on a smaller problem: Your contacts list.

The former Yahoo CEO and early Google executive co-founded Sunshine, the maker of an app that uses AI to organize your network’s phone numbers and email addresses. The company next plans to tackle social groups and event scheduling with other products, including an upcoming app called Sunshine Circles.

And yes, she’s aware that these might not sound like the most exciting AI applications these days, but she thinks they can make a big difference.

“We mused about naming the company Mundane AI,” Mayer told Tech Brew. “How do you take cutting-edge AI and just apply it to everyday problems that we all have to deal with?”

Beyond how AI can clean up your phone, we spoke with Mayer—who holds two AI-focused degrees from Stanford—about the state of the search wars, her time at Yahoo, and where she stands on the fears around the technology’s future.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Tech Brew: As someone who worked on Google search very early on, how much potential do you think generative AI has to transform the experience?

Marissa Mayer: At Google, we always knew that search would eventually become much more about answers than just relevant links. And I think that this is going to push further in that dimension. Do I think people are always going to want to ask their search in a chat form? No. So I do think that there will be other forms of search that still exist, though I think the format of the search results is going to change pretty radically. And the format that we’ve all come to know and love will diminish greatly over the next few years…I think that you’re gonna see that landscape shift quite a bit. And it’s going to happen pretty quickly.

Google is an incredible company with incredible technology. I do think they’re going to have to adapt their business model, quickly, in response to this. Is there a world for advertising in those new formats? Probably, but it probably doesn’t look like the advertising that has grown and iterated organically over the last 20 years.

Is Google in a good place when it comes to the new AI search race?

Google is in a very good place in terms of AI talent. Of the top 100 AI minds in the world right now, probably more than half of them work at Google. So they have a really, really strong stable of talent…They’re going to have to be really quick to adjust. Because it can’t just be, how do I get the AI right to generate the paragraph of a correct answer for this person? But also, how do I work in the right commercial opportunities, in a way that feels organic, in a way that the user understands? Google has to continue to build trust so users know what’s paid and what’s not. And so I think that there’s got to be an equal amount of thought that goes into how that business changes. Where Google goes, others will follow, but they’ve got to lead the advertisers to the right place and pretty quickly.

If there is one thing that you could have done differently in your time at Yahoo, what would it be?

My perspective on Yahoo is there are probably three things I would have done differently. One is obvious—I hired the wrong COO; I would have hired a different COO. I would have hired [current Integral Ad Science CEO] Lisa Utzschneider, who became my chief revenue officer. And that would have been great.

We looked at a transformative acquisition, and we bought Tumblr. At the same time, we were also considering whether it was possible to buy Hulu or, ironically, Netflix. And I think Netflix was $4 billion and Hulu was at $1.3 billion at the time. And either of those, with hindsight being 20/20, would have been a better acquisition.

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And probably the biggest one—if you made me name just one—is that we should have done the tax-free Alibaba spinoff to separate the assets of the company. Because one, if we had done that, it would have saved $10 billion for our shareholders or made them that money, whichever way you look at it, in taxes that were paid. And two, it would have allowed Yahoo to continue as an independent company, and it would have potentially had more success. Now it is an independent company and privately held by private equity. But I’m not sure that the foray through Verizon was as helpful to some of the technologies and what they had to offer as it could have been.

As you look toward the future of Sunshine, what are some of your goals for the startup?

We want to move into groups and events. This is really where a lot of our early passion for starting the company started. And so, thinking through how can you make it easier to get groups of people together? How can you help people throw events better? But it’s less about event organizing and the classic event space like Eventbrite or Paperless Post; it’s more about how do you actually connect people when they’re there? So you’re like, “I know that my friend was here. I made it easier to share photos that we all took today.”…We have two releases that will be out either this week or next that I can highlight. One of them is in that vein, a new app we’re going to call Sunshine Circles. It’s kind of bridging between contacts and groups. How do you get a group of contacts together for a company, for a family, for a soccer team, when you’re, like, “We all need this information. And by the way, we need everybody’s Venmo.” Just pulling together all that information. Not a lot of AI there, but just really practical. And then how do we take that data? How do we feed it back into contact management to make everyday tasks easier is where we’ll build from there.

There’s been a debate among big names in technology about whether AI development is progressing too fast. Most recently, deep learning pioneer Geoffrey Hinton left Google over his fears about AI. Where do you stand on the debate?

I have mixed thoughts on Hinton resigning. I always think that it’s better to engage with a problem than to estrange yourself. If you really think there’s that much of an issue, the worst thing you can do is leave. But AI aside, one of the big things that I saw him mention was something like, “I’m worried that people won’t be able to tell what truth is.” And we’re deep in a war with misinformation, from the 2016 election to Covid, whether or not it’s generated by AI, or by ill-intentioned people. There’s already a big issue with people being able to tell what’s true and what’s not.

I personally am pretty optimistic. I think that you have to have a particular lens…The best thinking is that if you put humans at the center of it and if you just try and, like, learn for learning’s sake. And just test the capabilities, kind of Jurassic Park-style…the “let’s see if we can do it” mentality can get you into trouble reasonably quickly in most science and technology. But I think if you say, look, we have a very clear lens where this is assisted to humans,”and puts humans in the middle of it, really thinking about, when should we use it on, like, life-and-death situations and other things like that? I think that can [lead to] very good outcomes. I also think that it’s important to realize that it’s got to be compared to reality, not perfection.

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.