Apple was one of the first big technology companies to launch a digital assistant when Siri debuted on the iPhone 4S in 2011. Despite this early lead, Apple has focused more on hardware, allowing both Google and Amazon to lap it with their own digital assistant AI. Now, Apple is gearing up for a fight with several high-profile AI hires. Its latest move is to poach John Giannandrea, Google’s head of AI.
Giannandrea has been leading Google’s AI efforts for several years. He came to the company when Google acquired a firm called Metaweb in 2010. The technology from Metaweb eventually merged with Google search to offer quick answers to natural language queries. For example, you can ask how far away the moon is or when the Magna Carta was signed, and Google has the answer for you at the top of the page.
Giannandrea served as chief technology officer for Metaweb, but his prominence in Google grew as it increasingly focused on machine learning and artificial intelligence. As Google’s machine learning guru, Giannandrea helped integrate deep learning AI into a number of products, most prominently Google Assistant.
An engineer with experience and proficiency in AI systems can basically name his or her price on the Silicon Valley job market. It’s not uncommon for an experienced AI engineer to land annual contracts worth more than $10 million. When Giannandrea announced last week that we was stepping down from Google, he was most likely bombarded with job offers. However, we now know his departure from Google was Apple’s doing.
Giannandrea will be in control of Apple’s machine learning and AI strategy, making him one of 16 executives at the company that report directly to CEO Tim Cook. This could mean Apple is finally on track to make Siri something worth using. Currently, it falls flat when you change your phrasing or ask a question to which Siri doesn’t have a pre-programmed answer. Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are both much better at understanding natural language.
Even with Apple’s newfound focus on AI, Giannandrea may find his job is harder than it was at Google. Apple stresses user privacy to a greater degree than Google, which offers free and ad-supported services with the understanding that Google might use your data to improve its technology. You need a lot of data to train neural networks, and Google definitely has that. It will take time for Giannandrea to make noticeable impacts on Apple’s AI platform, but we’ll keep an eye out.
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