Not long after Google confirmed that early employee Jeff Dean was taking over from senior vice president of engineering John Giannandrea, it became clear where Giannandrea was going: Apple.
As reported by The New York Times late Tuesday, Giannandrea will run Apple’s machine learning and artificial intelligence strategy. Back at Google, he was in charge of both AI and search, but that role is being split in two (Dean gets AI, and Ben Gomes takes over search development.)
So what is Apple doing on the AI front? Why does Apple hires googles AI chief?
Less than Google, certainly—it doesn’t have a business-focused cloud platform that it’s trying to use to push new machine learning and AI capabilities to its customers. However, Apple has Siri, its counterpart to Google’s Assistant, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa.
Apple’s virtual assistant is, by many accounts, somewhat lagging behind Google Assistant and Alexa in terms of smarts. Siri arguably provides the best virtual-assistant functionality on iOS devices, due to its tight integration with the iPhone and iPad operating system, but the battleground has moved into the realm of smart, voice-controlled speakers, and Siri needs to evolve to offer competitive functionality on that front.
Google has a major advantage in AI, because of the amount of data it has acquired through its search services, as well as its Android phones. Machine learning systems (which we often refer to as “AI,” although the “intelligence” nomenclature is questionable) self-improve by training themselves on massive datasets, so more data is generally seen as better.
However, Google’s data collection has often been seen as anti-privacy. Apple has in recent years been very keen to distinguish itself from rivals such as Google and Facebook by pointing out that it makes money from selling things to people, not from exploiting people’s information.
While that does set Apple apart and give the company massive kudos in the digital rights realm, it also puts the company at a disadvantage when it comes to AI development. The company claims it is working on techniques for training its algorithms without breaking its privacy promises.
Bringing in Giannandrea to head up AI and machine learning strategy gives Apple a good shot at getting back in the game. Not only is he deeply knowledgeable about the competition, but he knows better than most people how to infuse AI into a stable of disparate products.