Sitting on a cash pile of billions, Apple’s not a company
that’s used to being left behind. But when it comes to
artificial intelligence, that’s exactly what has happened in
recent years. While companies like Google and Facebook led the
way with cutting-edge AI, Apple lagged. It was embarrassing for
a company in Apple’s position to miss out on the single best
tech revolution taking place at the moment.
WWDC 2017 keynote, Apple went a long way toward making
Why Apple fell behind in AI
Few things summed up the different headspaces of Apple and
Google, the two biggest tech companies in the world, than their
respective biggest purchases of 2014. Google invested in the
future with U.K.
deep learning startup DeepMind, which has since gone on to
produce some of the biggest breakthroughs in AI in recent years
— most notably developing the AlphaGo AI that was
able to beat the world’s No. 1 ranked Go player in a
bought Beats Music.
there’s no doubting that Beats is a cool brand popular with the
all-important youth market, and that it helped form the basis
for Apple Music, it’s difficult to suggest that it’s close to
the significant acquisition that DeepMind was. That’s before
you even take into account the fact that Google paid “just”
$400 million for DeepMind, compared to Apple’s $3 billion
outlay for Beats.
tech watchers, it looked like Apple was missing out on a
tech revolution happening right under its nose.
Google has continued to both carry out research on the cutting
edge of AI and to incorporate machine learning tools into its
products. Apple might have debuted the AI virtual assistant
with Siri, but Google Now rapidly overtook it.
Apple’s extreme secrecy, and refusal to publish any of its AI
research for competitive reasons,
only exacerbated the problem. AI researchers were suddenly
the hottest commodity in tech — and for the first time since
the “bad old days” of the 1990s, Apple wasn’t the place that
the best people in the field wanted to work.
Somewhere along the way, Apple changed its stance. In 2014,
using deep learning technology to improve Siri, something
Google had been busy doing with its own software for a couple
Last year, Apple finally agreed to let its researchers start
publishing their work in academic journals. OK, so it’s
only published one so far — a paper on training image
recognition algorithms, titled “Learning From Simulated and
Unsupervised Images Through Adversarial Training” — but it’s a
start for a company that often goes to extreme lengths to keep
its research secret.
Expect AI to show up in more iOS
AI makes Apple devices smarter
There were several big announcements at WWDC about how Apple is
using machine learning in virtually all its new products. For
4 brings a new watch face powered by Siri. The Siri watch
face customizes content in real time — including everything
from traffic information and news to smart home controls and
anything else the virtual assistant thinks might be relevant.
11, meanwhile, gets an improved Memories feature — letting
users more easily identify things like events and people in
their images — along with a better voice for Siri.
Maybe the most important
announcement, however, barely got any attention onstage during
an event that seemed
crammed to the bursting point. This was the debut of a set
of new machine learning tools and APIs created by Apple for iOS
11, called Core ML.
These will let developers integrate features like image
recognition and natural language processing into regular iOS
apps. Features include face tracking, face detection, landmark
recognition, text detection, bar code detection, object
tracking and more.
To maintain Apple’s reputation for user privacy, these tools
run locally on devices rather than being processed in the
cloud. To help achieve this, Core ML’s toolset will be
optimized in such a way that it minimizes RAM usage and power
(Apple is also rumored to be developing a chip designed
specifically for handling machine learning tasks, which
would make iPhones and iPads even more adept at carrying out
these types of functions locally.)
On top of this, Apple now supports an open source deep-learning
framework called Caffe, which lets users
build and train neural nets. (Google’s own AI framework,
currently notable in its absence.)
Apple turns the corner on
To be clear, Apple’s still got a lot of catching up to do. It
may have considerably more coins in its coffers than other tech
companies, but the likes of Google, Baidu and others have
significantly more time invested in artificial intelligence.
Cupertino’s competitors also employ many of the world’s leading
But Apple’s apparently turned a corner on AI — and that can
only be positive.