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

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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.

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I guess I must be dumb because I don’t see the problem.

1. Apple can do a lot of research based upon anonymized data. I’ve heard that Siri’s identifier changes every fifteen minutes. That’s probably a good setting for most Siri interactions but users could opt-in for longer

2. Apple already has a lot of data that we have provided - such as iTunes catalogs and viewing habits (tied to iTunes). Now, I don’t want this sold to third-parties but we already know that Apple uses it for recommendations etc. This is disclosed up-front, so no issues.

3. If Apple does go into search, it can do it as anonymized and tracked - user chooses. And it could also be correlated but not identified (although research could identify a large enough collection).


I think you’ve pretty much nailed it, vpndev. Not that I know anything about AI, the Cloud or data security. But I also think Apple should have a go at developing machine learning, and I trust them more with my ‘secrets’ and ability to keep intruders away from it, than anyone else.


It may sound counter-intuitive but Apple’s privacy scruples is not a hindrance, it’s actually an advantage in the marketplace because customers trust Apple to do this AI thing in a way that will respect and protect privacy.

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