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eBay CEO: Supersmart AI will help you sell everything

Devin Wenig answers burning questions on artificial intelligence, e-commerce and Tom Brady's missing Super Bowl jersey.

eBay CEO Devin Wenig at eBay's Manhattan offices

Devin Wenig, here at eBay's Manhattan offices, joined the company in 2011 and became CEO in 2015.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Devin Wenig buys his garbage bags, shampoo and even toothpaste on eBay.

That's not typical for your regular eBay customer, who may visit for a car, cardigan or collectible coin. But as eBay's CEO, the 50-year-old Wenig likes to buy as much as he can from the site, now the world's third-largest e-retailer after Amazon and Alibaba.

Wenig, who took over at eBay in mid-2015 after the company split with PayPal, met with CNET at his firm's Manhattan office last week during a snowstorm. Along with his buying habits, he talked about standing up for immigration in America, how artificial intelligence and e-commerce will upend industries and where he thinks Tom Brady's missing Super Bowl jersey ended up.

Here's an edited version transcript:

Q: Why did you feel it was important for eBay to add its name to a court filing against President Donald Trump's travel ban?
Wenig: There are a couple of issues that are really fundamental to our business. They're fundamental to what we do, and they're fundamental to the values of our employees. And immigration is one of those issues. We're obviously founded by a French-Syrian immigrant and if you walk around that campus you'll understand how extraordinarily diverse it is. And a lot of our employees who are incredibly talented are people who have come to the United States. So, for us it's not a political issue, it's a business issue, and it's a cultural issue.

eBay is a marketplace where a lot of small and medium-size businesses make their money. Is there any concern that politicizing eBay in any way could have a negative backlash?
Wenig: I don't view it as politicizing eBay. Just to be really clear, as an American and as the CEO of an American company, I want the president of the United States to succeed. With that said, there are a couple of core issues that we will stand up for. And if you stand for everything or you don't stand for anything, then that's a problem. And these issues are not political issues vis-a-vis eBay -- they're business issues. And because of that, I am not afraid to speak and we will speak.

How significant do you see AI moving into the future?
Wenig: AI's not a feature, it's the next major computing platform shift. And it's going to have a really profound implication on computing, on how people interact with machines, how machines interact with each other. It's right there. I'm not sure everybody sees that, but it's right there. And the breakthroughs are going to be profound, and they're going to come quick.

I believe it will be a net positive, but that doesn't mean there aren't issues to watch out for. The issues about concentration of power and control. The issues about job losses are real, there are going to be jobs lost quickly, soon. Most of the big shifts in technology over the past 100 years are disruptive, but they are net job creators. You could look at the steam engine as a technology platform shift. It was pretty scary being a farmer at the turn of the century when the steam engine came. And that's kind of what we're facing, right? There are going to be less cab drivers three years from now. There are going to be less window washers when drones start doing that, based on AI. And that isn't 10 years away. That's not a science fiction fantasy. That's a few years away.

You've said eBay wants to democratize AI for small and medium-sized businesses. How?
Wenig: There's a lot of inventory on eBay, and there's a lot of buyers, and if you don't use targeting, it's all lost in the great morass. But we do understand, increasingly, what people want and browse and their interests. And the better we target, the more sales a small business gets.

We're doing a lot of work on image recognition. Computers are getting really good at recognizing things. We're not that far away from a future where you'll just do this. [Wenig picks up his phone and acts out taking photos of a pen in front of him.] You'll just take a picture of that and we'll match it through AI to our catalogue, we'll know exactly what that pen is. And we'll say, do you wanna sell it? We can get you five bucks right now for that pen.

Tell me about your younger brother's antique car business.
Wenig: He actually worked in the New York financial industry and hated it. And he and his wife and kids moved down and bought a business in south Florida that is the leading antique and race car restoration shop. And the way his eBay thing got started is they made some parts themselves and they source parts. He's working on, like, a 1956 Italian race car of which there are five in the world. The only place he could get parts for that car was on eBay. And sometimes you can't find a part, it doesn't exist, so they make it. And then when he makes one part, he'll make five, use one in the car, and put four up for sale.

Where's Tom Brady's missing Super Bowl jersey?
Wenig: Good question. Where is Tom Brady's jersey? Did anybody check, like, the locker room guys? I don't know. It's not on eBay.

Have you guys been checking?
Wenig: If that jersey was on eBay, if somebody were to report it, we'd take it down. But it's not on eBay. I am not personally checking to see if Tom Brady's jersey is on eBay.

What do you buy on eBay?
Wenig: I buy everything on eBay. And I get amazing service, as you would expect me to say, but I think what people don't realize is, I buy everything on eBay. I buy shampoo on eBay. I buy toothpaste on eBay. I buy garbage bags on eBay. And my wife knows, before she walks out to the store, I'm like, "Did you check eBay first?" And she says, "Knock it off, I'm going to get milk."

Have you ever gotten scammed on eBay?
Wenig: No. I've never gotten scammed on eBay. It's true.

Malls are struggling, The Limited filed for bankruptcy. Traditional retailers are flagging. Are they doing something wrong?
Wenig: I don't think they're doing something wrong, but I do think that the disruption is so profound, and we're in the endgame now. The impact of tech on retail, people have been talking about it for years, but this holiday season was quite a moment. When you look at what happened, where people shopped, you look at the earnings of most retailers around the world, it was shocking to many. But inevitable in some ways, inevitable.

It doesn't mean there won't be stores in the world. People like stores. It just means there'll be a highly different store footprint. A more tech-enabled store that has to compete on entertainment and engagement as much as or more so than on inventory. It means culturally there's going to be a massive transformation of the retail industry. It's not five years away, it started this holiday. And I wouldn't be surprised if there were some major retailers around the world who aren't here by the next holiday.

What will shopping look like 10 years from now?
Wenig: I think commerce is going to be highly personal, conversational, it'll sit on multiple devices. And there's absolutely no reason that commerce isn't going follow you, know you, be very personal and pull a lot of data in to build a great experience. Get you the right product, at the right moment, at the right price. That's going to be commerce. We're setting eBay up to be that.

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