Apple's Quest for Machine Learning Services Bumps up against Privacy Protection

Apple and SearchApple has a problem. The company is committed to privacy, and that's a problem if you want to offer best-in-class artificial intelligence (AI) powered by machine learning. According to Reuters, Apple is beefing up its stable of a AI experts with an emphasis on machine learning, but their task is hampered by Apple's commitment to protecting our data.

Privacy and data integrity is something I've written and spoken about for years. It's one of the reasons I like Apple's products and services—Apple is the only platform company that has made privacy a selling point.

Google and Facebook, on the other hand, two other companies working on artificial intelligence, have pilfering our content and data for their own fun and profit baked into their business model. This gives them a huge advantage when it comes to big data, and machine learning needs big data to do the learning.

Another advantage for Google and Facebook is that they both have access to places where people search, look for things, and click/tap. Google's search engine, massive ad network, and access to billions of email accounts gives the company huge insight on what we, the product, are up to and how we think. Facebook has its own advantages here from its billion-plus users, massive login network, and ad services.

It's why I've argued that Apple should go into search. Not only would it hit Google in the pocketbook, an Apple search engine would give the company all sorts of data for Siri to gobble up.


But that runs us back into Apple's commitment to privacy. It's one thing for the company not to profit from our data (like Google and Facebook), but Apple has committed to keeping our data local to our devices, too. If Apple isn't slurping our data into the cloud, Siri can't chew on it.

It's a conundrum, and according to former Apple employees cited by Reuters it's kept some machine learning experts away from Apple. Turns out that some folks who want to play with big data go to where the big data is.

That hasn't stopped Apple from adding to its AI roster, however. Another (or the same) unnamed former Apple employee said Apple has tripled or quadrupled the number of AI experts it employees in the last few years.

Reuters also said it analyzed Apple's job postings and found listings for some 86 current AI and machine learning positions. To find those employees, the company has increased its participation in industry conferences and is getting involved in the world of academia so it can interest doctoral students in its projects.

"In the past, Apple has not been at the vanguard of machine learning and cutting edge artificial intelligence work, but that is rapidly changing," Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and a professor at the University of Washington, told Reuters. "They are after the best and the brightest, just like everybody else."

Do It Anyway

That's the thing about Apple. Doing artificial intelligence is hard. Doing it while respecting users and their collective privacy is harder still, but Apple is working on it anyway. Google, Facebook, and others may have a shortcut due to their invasive practices, but that doesn't mean that Apple can't do it the right way.

It's what Apple does, and if the company does so again with this enormous task, it could turn into a huge advantage for its devices in the marketplace.

Tim Cook has said on more than one occasion that consumers will eventually come to care about privacy, and that privacy is part of Apple's core. Artificial intelligence and machine learning may be the ultimate test of that core principal, but I am confident that Apple can and will pass that test.