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Salesforce's embrace of AI was sparked by an edict from Marc Benioff, co-founder says

  • Salesforce is moving fast to make its products smarter just like it rushed to incorporate social media and better support mobile devices.
  • Salesforce has brought on AI talent through a string of acquisitions.
Salesforce cofounder Parker Harris, right, with CEO Marc Benioff at Salesforce's 2015 Dreamforce conference.
Salesforce cofounder Parker Harris, right, with CEO Marc Benioff at Salesforce's 2015 Dreamforce conference.

Artificial intelligence is reshaping Salesforce in the same way that mobile and social did in years past.

The company thrived in the transition to mobile computing with custom apps for smartphones and succeeded in social with messaging service Chatter as well as tools for tracking internet ads. Now, Salesforce is embracing AI to automate sales leads and make customer service smarter.

On Wednesday, Salesforce introduced new AI services that third-party developers can weave into their applications.

How did this internal trend start?

Marc Benioff, Salesforce's CEO, issued an edict of sorts a couple years ago telling his staff that "everything needs to be powered by AI," said Parker Harris, the company's co-founder and product strategy chief, in an interview with CNBC.

"He said, 'You know what -- we need to have AI in all of our clouds,'" Harris said.

Historically, Benioff has played the role of idea guy at the cloud software company, while the work of implementing ideas has fallen to Harris.

With AI, Salesforce engineers were doing some testing, but the efforts were propelled forward through a flurry of deals. The company acquired BeyondCore, Implisit Insights, MinHash, PredictionIO and most importantly MetaMind. Recent acquisitions Demandware and Krux also had some AI projects in the works, Harris said.

Salesforce has to keep pace with other big technology firms that are also investing heavily in AI and is paying up for acquisitions and individual hires.

Harris, meanwhile, has been busy injecting AI into Salesforce's services in accord with Benioff's directive, which came in early 2015 by his recollection. For example, the company is applying AI to its core business of tracking customer relationships and other areas like customer service interactions and marketing.

"It wouldn't have worked if we had said, 'Let's build the brain for Salesforce and then start to apply it to each of the areas,'" Harris said.

At the same time, Salesforce also wants to provide core services that other applications can use. The new tools for app developers allow third parties to pick up on sentiment and intent in text and recognize objects in images through Salesforce's Einstein portfolio.

Salesforce is also getting some help from another big player in AI. In March the company announced a partnership with IBM to have Watson contribute relevant information to Salesforce's clouds.

"It's pretty cool that we're able to leverage all that AI and add it to our AI," Harris said.