Apple Poaches Google AI Chief To Help Siri Catch Up With Rivals

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Apple has hired Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence to lead its machine learning and AI efforts. John Giannandrea had been at Google since 2010.

In an official statement, the iPhone maker confirmed the appointment, saying John Giannandrea will head Apple’s machine learning and AI strategy and would report directly to Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook. John is the new entrant in the elite 16 who report directly to Cook, according to the New York Times.

Introducing John Giannandrea to the staff, Cook in an email sent to staff members (obtained by The New York Times), said: “John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.”

The new hire comes at a time when Apple desperately needed someone to lead its crucial AI division (more specifically Apple Siri). Lately, experts and analysts have raised concerns that the iPhone maker is falling behind peers in artificial intelligence, a technology enabling future computers to handle more complex tasks such as understanding voice commands and identifying people in images.

The Cupertino, California-based company has been aggressively hiring software engineers as it works towards making Siri smarter to make it stand against rivals such as Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant. Other recent high-profile appointments made by Apple in the space include Carnegie Mellon professor, Russ Salakhutdinov.

John Giannandrea, who is affectionately called J.G. by colleagues, was absorbed by Google when the search giant bought Metaweb. He helped integrate AI into every Google product including internet search, Gmail and Google Assistant. Metaweb – at that time – was focusing its efforts on building something described as a “database of the world’s knowledge.” This was later integrated by Google into its search engine to respond to the user’s queries, notes The New York Times. It was during his tenure, when AI research became top priority inside Google.

Apart from enhancing Apple Siri AI capabilities, Giannandrea would also possibly supervise the development of products like Core ML for iOS app developers and the dedicated AI Chip, which is allegedly under development. The company is looking to hire over 150 people for its Siri team to catch up with the juggernauts.

During a TechCrunch event in September 2017, Giannandrea described computers as “incredibly powerful” but “pretty dumb.” At the time, he said that more efforts are required to make computers smarter so that they can think better. “Technology should augment the human intellect, not replace it. It should be a powerful tool to help us think better, and I think that is really the journey we are on,” Giannandrea said then.

Talking about the future of the technology, John Giannandrea also mentioned the possibility of personalized “pervasive computing,” where the capacities of the computer to assist humans would be infused in the entire environment rather than shrinking into the mobile phones. At the time, John pointed towards Google Home as a hint of what’s coming.

Facebook and Google lead the AI technology, followed by Amazon and Microsoft. These companies have hired hundreds of researchers who work on different domains, publishing significant papers that not only helps in the in-house development of AI capable devices but also serves as a knowledge source for the AI research community, notes The Verge.

Apple, which was quick to develop its voice-based digital assistant Siri, fell behind with no access to data, the research talent and resources to approach AI development with the same robustness as the rivals. In terms of quality, Apple Siri is way behind Google Assistant, which uses the same ground-breaking algorithms that power Google Translate and Google search image. Also, Apple Siri lags behind Amazon Alexa, which has already cemented its position as the smart home industry leader, notes The Verge.

For a long time, Apple didn’t even let its own employees publish research in AI. Also, Apple took its own sweet time to be a part of an ethical AI research consortium co-founded by Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and IBM. According to The Verge, while Apple follows strict ethical norms in data collection and user privacy, it has harmed the organization’s ability to match other Silicon Valley giants.

Lately, leading Silicon Valley companies have seen major shake-ups at higher level management, in the AI space. Last week, Windows’ chief Terry Myerson departed after Microsoft announced that it would focus more on AI and the Cloud. Last month, Alexa’s head AI researcher Ashwin Ram left Amazon to join Google as technical director of AI. Engineers with AI expertise are in high demand at the Silicon Valley right now, sometimes fetching salaries exceeding eight figures.

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