Thomas K Thomas

How Apple is taking AI to the masses

Thomas K Thomas Mumbai | Updated on January 10, 2018

Tim Cook, Apple CEO

Differential privacy, opening the door to developers prove advantageous to the tech company, say experts

Engineers and product managers at Apple’s headquarters at Cupertino these days are obsessed with the idea of embedding artificial intelligence (AI) into every aspect of consumer’s digital touch points. That’s because Apple chief Tim Cook wants AI to be like air, all pervasive yet invisible.

“The beauty of AI is that the user does not have to think about launching an application or think like ‘okay, I am going to do some AI now’. This is embedded in things which you don’t even get to know. If you talk to our various teams — the software team, Apple TV team, the mail team, the home pod team — all of them have AI projects going on. AI is sought of like air. It's invisible yet all permeating,” Cook told BusinessLine in a recent interview.

But its not as if Apple started thinking about AI recently, although it has started talking more about it now. The tech major was among the first companies to use AI-based predictive tools for its assistant — Siri— in 2011. “While Google, Facebook and Amazon are each making significant progress as it relates to AI, it’s worth noting that Apple was the first company of the four to embrace it. Apple’s AI roots date back to the mid-1990s with handwriting recognition on the Newton,” says Gene Munster, Founder of research firm Loup Ventures.

Differential privacy

While critics say that Apple may have lost the initiative in between due to its stand on privacy, the company has found a way around it through a concept called differential privacy. “Apple’s stand on protecting user privacy had sort of slowed them down. Machine learning and AI are based on tonnes of data . This means to get data , the engine needs to collect data from users. But given that Apple has a very strong stand on privacy it took a huge hit on AI development. But with differential privacy, Apple has emerged as a big winner and is back in the game big time,” said Sanchit Vir Gogia, Founder, GreyHound Research.

Differential privacy allows Apple to build AI products that understand users without snooping on their activities. “Its based on anonymising data. Apple adds noises inside data they collect. So even when a hacker comes to hack, he will not be able to connect to a user. For example, if you take picture at a certain location, Apple will introduce 20 more picture from some other location so that no one will get to know that the user was at a specific location. This is a huge plus for Apple,” says Gogia.

The other thing that Apple has done is to open up its platform to developers. In June, Apple announced Core ML, a platform that allows application developers to easily integrate machine learning (ML) into an app.

“Of the estimated 2.4 million apps available on the App Store, we believe less than 1 per cent leverage ML today — but not for long. We believe Core ML will be a driving force in bringing machine learning to the masses in the form of more useful and insightful apps that run faster and respect user privacy,” said Munster.

Apple reckons that its ownership of hardware, software and the silicon gives it a huge advantage over rival players who may have ownership of one or two elements of the ecosystem.

“On the silicon, the CPU advancements are slower but the GPU advancements are exponential. These advancements allow things that are at the core of machine learning, which you could not have done a year ago. This would allow you do even more in the next five years. This is a huge competitive advantage for Apple because we have such an enormous deep expertise in silicon. The rest of the players in the industry have to go to somebody else for the chip, someone else for the software. The old vertical model has its limitations in a world that's moving so fast,” says Cook.

Strong user base

Analysts say that Apple’s existing user base with millions of iPhone and iPad users is a ready platform for the company to roll out future AI services. “Apple’s user base is so strong, its integration with the ecosystem is so efficient that when Apple comes out with newer applications of AI its impact on users will be significant. Other players still have issues on privacy, trojans and phone kernel which makes it vulnerable,” says Gogia.

Indian context

In the Indian context, Apple will have to ensure that it scales up the user base. The price point for its hardware has to become lower to increase the installed base of the Apple devices, including wearables. A problem which Cook is aware of. “It’s never been about volumes for us. I definitely want more. With all the things we are doing in India I am confident that growth will come. We are patient. This is not about a quarter or a year or a decade, we want to be in India for a 1,000 years,” says Cook.

Loup Ventures’ Munster believes that Apple could wean away developers to get interested in developing apps. “If developers see more money making apps for Apple, that can be a tipping point,” he said. “There is no doubt that Apple will be a key player in leading the drive to take AI to the masses.”

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Published on September 01, 2017
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