Bezos, AI and Trump chatter dominate Code Conference

Jeff Bezos
Asa Mathat | Vox Media
Jeff Bezos

Artificial intelligence and space travel were the dominant themes at this week's Code Conference. That is, when attendees weren't talking about Peter Thiel and Donald Trump.

Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos kicked off the three-day event on Tuesday night in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, with a wide-ranging discussion touching many of his pursuits. By the conference's close on Thursday morning, people were still buzzing.

"I think everyone left the room long Amazon," said Jeff Richards, a partner at GGV Capital in Silicon Valley.

Sanu Desai, a managing director at investment bank Torch Partners in San Francisco, said it was "one of the best discussions at a conference I have seen in a long time."

And Celena Aponte, director of strategic iniatives at the Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center, said "his vision of the world as cheesy as it sounds was inspirational."

EBay CEO Devin Wenig took the stage on Thursday as the conference was winding down, and was grilled about what it's like to try and stay relevant in an Amazonian world.

EBay is less than one-tenth the size of Amazon and growing at one-seventh the rate. Recode co-founder Walt Mossberg made sure to remind him of that.

"Note to self, I've got to speak before Bezos at the next conference," Wenig said.

One of Amazon's new hot products is the Echo, the voice-controlled device that lets consumers buy groceries, play music, and ask questions about the news. The Echo is powered by Alexa, Amazon's artificial intelligence engine.

The other big players in AI were also on full display at the conference. IBM CEO Ginni Rometty spoke at length about Watson, the company's cognitive computing system that was once used to power a robot to a victory on "Jeopardy."

Google has AI running through all of its businesses and is readying an Echo competitor called Google Home that's expected to hit the markets later this year. Google CEO Sundar Pichai was also among the Code keynotes.

"Everyone is consumed with AI," said Hemant Taneja, a managing director at General Catalyst Partners and investor in companies including Snapchat, Stripe and Gusto. "But it is a tool for the large tech companies that grossly upsets the playing field because start-ups don't have the data to make it useful."

The Wednesday night crowd stayed to hear from Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who arrived almost an hour late because of some "landing gear issue" with his plane.

It was somewhat ironic coming from the guy whose company recently landed a space rocket vertically on a floating drone barge.

Musk, like Bezos, is deeply interested in space travel. His company SpaceX is already worth billions, having won government contracts to send supplies into space. His greater mission is to send humans to Mars, a goal he said is attainable by 2024.

"Bezos's presentation was the most entertaining and Musk's was the deepest," said David Zilberman, a managing director at Comcast Ventures in San Francisco. (Zilberman is a board member at Vox Media, the parent company of Recode.)

In the sessions themselves but more on the sidelines, there was plenty of Peter Thiel vs. Gawker chatter. Bezos, who also happens to own The Washington Post, weighed in by suggesting that Thiel and other public figures, "develop a thick skin" when it comes to how people report on them.

Thiel, it was revealed recently, is bankrolling Terry Bollea (aka Hulk Hogan) in his legal pursuits against Gawker. Pending appeal, Gawker owes Hogan about $140 million as a result of losing the trial.

Gawker founder Nick Denton took the stage at Code on Thursday in part to defend himself publicly and to talk more broadly about the future of media and how it covers the rich and powerful.

Long known for hit pieces on the tech industry, particularly from its former site Valleywag, Gawker didn't have a lot of allies in this crowd.

"The jury decided that Gawker did something bad," said venture capitalist Stewart Alsop, co-founder of Alsop Louie Partners. "Whether the lawyers got money from a billionaire or worked on contingency, the jury didn't see any of that money."

Yoav Leitersdorf of YL Ventures said he's not happy about a billionaire potentially putting Gawker out of business. But neither is he too sympathetic.

"I never appreciated Valleywag and some of the other Gawker properties to the point that I think that in a way Gawker got what it deserved," he said. "I am split between wanting free speech protected at all costs, and wishing that publishers had more respect for privacy and decency."

Of course, with the presidential election looming and the California primaries just days away, there was plenty of political talk too. Leitersdorf is among the many attendees who fear what a Donald Trump presidency would mean to foreign policy, the treatment of minorities and the view of the U.S. by other countries.

My colleague, Harriet Taylor, has that story here. She was even able to find a Trump supporter for an alternative perspective.

For more coverage of the Code Conference, click here.

CNBC's parent NBCUniversal is an investor in Recode's parent Vox, and the companies have a content-sharing arrangement.