The best analyst questions during Apple’s Q4 2016 Financial Results came from Simona Jankowski with Goldman Sachs. She asked Tim Cook about his perspective on home vs. mobile artificial intelligence (AI) agents and then the issue of privacy. Tim Cook took a solid stand on both questions that reveal the future direction of Apple.
Q: “There’s been an increasing focus on artificial intelligence both in new smartphones like the new (Google) Pixel and also some of the home assistants like the Amazon Echo… How do you think about balancing AI with your focus on privacy. And then how important is it to have a dedicated home assistant versus just having the phone as the home assistant?”
Tim Cook replied in detail, tackling the second part of the question first.
A: I think that most people would like an assistant that’s with them all the time. We live in a mobile society. People are constantly moving from home to work…. And so the advantage of having an assistant on a phone is that it’s with you all the time. That’s not to say that there’s not a nice market for a home one … on balance the usage on a phone will be much greater. Just look at Siri today. This is now accelerating with iOS 10 and the Mac… we’ve been getting two billion requests a week. Our focus on this is worldwide, so it’s not only a U.S. focus. We want to deliver a great experience around the world.
In terms of the balance between privacy and AI, and this is a long conversation, but at a high level, I think it’s a false trade-off—that people would like you to believe. That you have to give up privacy in order for an AI to do something for you. We don’t buy that. It make take a different kind of work. It may take more thinking. But I don’t think we should throw privacy away…. That at a high level is how we feel.
The comment by Mr. Cook about home devices certainly doesn’t rule out Apple building a home device like the Amazon Echo or Dot. But clearly Mr. Cook is emphasizing a vision for how Apple wants Siri to work. It has been said that the best camera is the one you have with you. It appears Apple also feels that the best AI agent is the one in your pocket, available in multiple languages, all around the world.
This is also a dramatic clarification for those who suggest that Apple must rush to duplicate every product developed by other tech giants. Apple has a very clear vision for the operational model of a personal AI, and it’s not a stationary device on the kitchen table. Yet.
With respect to privacy, this is a more complex issue than Mr. Cook wanted to get into. He did indeed point out that it is a “long conversation.” That’s likely because a truly self-aware AI has to have a lot of personal information at its fingertips and be very situationally aware before it can perform many of the tasks we desire. Or think we desire.
Even so, Mr. Cook addressed the problem at a high level. Rather than taking the easy route, Mr. Cook is saying that Apple is going to do more of the tough thinking to make sure that we can have both a smart, useful AI and still preserve our privacy.
That could happen with advanced AI security techniques, more local processing, or other (difficult) methods that Apple may develop. But Mr. Cook’s sense of values, that an AI should serve and protect, is a testament to the culture of Apple and how it intends to set itself apart from the competition.
Because of this technical gauntlet that Mr. Cook has laid down, Apple may well appear to be behind the competition, for a time, when it comes to the “IQ” of its AI Siri.
These are all signposts on the highway that reveal how Apple intends to proceed. We should fold them into our thinking about Apple.