Born in the era of the personal computer’s ascendence and fascinated by its machinations and applications, Drew Houston took a liking to computer programming at an early age. Later in life, he was similarly taken by the internet’s progress and mobile telephones. Now the Dropbox CEO finds himself dazzled by A.I.’s transformative properties and the potential for new business streams at the company he cofounded in 2007.
“The A.I. world is just super exciting from a technical perspective. So often, I’m coding like an 18-year-old again on weekends,” the now 40-year-old Houston tells Fortune.
For instance, the cloud-storage company’s new Dropbox Dash product aims to let users quickly and easily search their files on cloud services and computers, which A.I.’s capability to sift through unimaginable mounds of data makes possible. “I built a prototype of kind of a personal search engine for myself because I have had these issues too,” he says. He adds that A.I. makes massive amounts of data far more manageable and will open new avenues for Dropbox to serve larger clients than it historically has.
While Houston says there have been a few hype cycles already around A.I., with many more to come, he believes the technology will ultimately be as transformative as cheerleaders say. “Overall, if you zoom out, it’s the real thing, and we see this round of A.I. as the start of a new era of computing,” says Houston.
This article has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: Is this interest in A.I. destined to fizzle out as before, or is it the real deal this time?
A.I. has been around for generations, but I think it’s for real now given the emergence of large language models and generative A.I. There have been little hype cycles in A.I. over the last seven years, so we’ll see a cyclical aspect where the hype gets ahead of itself. But if you zoom out, it’s the real thing now, and I see this as the start of a new era in computing, much like the PC era, the cloud and mobile era, and so on.
So what does A.I. unlock for Dropbox?
It basically gives us this silicon brain that’s a good complement to our human brains. Computers are good at handling large amounts of information and never get tired. The one weakness computers had historically was being unable to read text, but they can with large language models. The opportunity for Dropbox is to help answer greater demands because, since its inception, Dropbox has been the place where people store a lot of their most important information. We can connect the dots.
Is A.I. a threat to workers or, on the contrary, an enhancement?
We’re really interested in the potential for A.I. and large language models to help eliminate the drudgery of busy work that’s crept into our working lives. It’s an opportunity for us to be freed up to do things only humans can do. But it’s also true that A.I. brings the potential to exacerbate inequality. These models have tech challenges, such as knowing whether they are trustworthy.
Will A.I. live up to the expectations set for it by an industry that could be overpromising progress and falling short?
That’s par for the course in these hype cycles. A.I. has had multiple rounds of this hype cycle; there will be others. But when you take a high-level view, the curve will be pretty steadily up, and the capabilities of these technologies will keep increasing, which will be consequential. It’s probably the most exciting technology in my lifetime.
There have been many layoffs in tech, including at Dropbox this year, and a drop in valuations compared to two years ago. Is tech still a compelling industry to go into?
We’ve certainly seen no shortage of enthusiasm for tech. That said, there have been these macroeconomic cycles, and there’s certainly been a correction and a more challenging macro environment. I think it’s a good thing that there’s been somewhat of a return to normal in terms of valuations. With the bull market, things were overheated for so long, and you saw these late 1990s-type dynamics with companies trading at levels that were divorced from financial underpinnings. It wasn’t healthy. It’s obviously terrible for the impacted people, but it’s good to be in a more sustainable environment.
Dropbox is San Francisco–based. What do you make of all the San Francisco bashing that the city is dying and is a terrible business town?
San Francisco is an amazing city. We wouldn’t have been able to grow Dropbox into what it has become if we hadn’t started in San Francisco. You’re seeing a resurgence in enthusiasm for the city because a lot of the folks on the leading edge of machine learning and A.I. are concentrated here. It will always be an incredible city with tremendous network effects, thanks to its investors, entrepreneurs, and talent. That said, the city has challenges.
Dropbox has long been known as a storage tool for mom-and-pop creative companies. Is there a bigger opportunity with large companies, especially with A.I.?
Our sweet spot is more on the smaller end of the spectrum: small and midsize businesses as opposed to the largest or most regulated companies. So you’ll see photographers, creative agencies, hospitals, and government agencies. But larger organizations have challenges for their employees, like information overload. We have a new product, Dropbox Dash, doing A.I.-powered search. If you’re in a 10,000-person company, you’ll have a lot more stuff to deal with and more tools to juggle. So we believe this is the sweet spot for the next generation of our products.
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