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Former Google heavy-hitter now in charge of getting Apple back in the AI game

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It’s become a bit of conventional wisdom that Apple lags its peers in tech when it comes to AI. That products like Siri may have been released early enough to give Apple what should have been a strong lead, but similar offerings from companies like Google and Amazon are an order of magnitude more useful than Apple’s tools — and getting better every day.

We’ll save the “why” of all that, the privacy issues and learning about users in a comprehensive way over time, for another post. What’s ironic, though, is that the guy now tasked with helping change this reality at Apple, John Giannandrea, used to be in charge of machine intelligence, research and search teams at Google, of all places. Giannandrea spent eight years there, and during his stint he pushed to make AI more of a centerpiece in products like Gmail and Google Assistant. And it’s Giannandrea who now leads a new unit at Apple — a unit that has combined the company’s AI and machine learning efforts, the company has confirmed.

You could argue that Apple had no choice, that it needed someone with Giannandrea’s chops to get itself back where it needs to be in the AI game. According to his official Apple bio, his title is the company’s Chief of Machine Learning and AI Strategy, and he reports directly to CEO Tim Cook.

“John joined Apple in 2018 and oversees the strategy for Artificial Intelligence and machine learning across the company and development of Core ML and Siri technologies,” his bio reads.

Before his time at Google, Giannandrea co-founded two tech companies, Tellme Networks and Metaweb Technologies. And before that he was a senior engineer at General Magic.

How much headway he can make within the context of the general philosophy at Apple around data and user privacy — it will be interesting to see if all of that can coexist successfully. Apple’s directives right from the top mean it hasn’t collected mountains of data on users the way other companies have, to which machine learning and algorithms can be applied and extract the same level of value from the way you see at a company like Google.

The storyline that’s emerged in the tech press in the wake of Apple making Giannandrea’s new mandate clear is that this is Apple basically making up for lost time.

TechCrunch, for example, points to Apple’s digital assistant for a bit of context. “The haphazard way that Siri has lurched forward has got to get smoothed out if Apple is going to make a huge play for improvements in the same way that it’s doing with Maps. I think at some point there was a realization that doing (AI/machine learning) heavy lifting with the additional load of maintaining user data privacy was enough to carry without having to also maintain several different stacks for its (machine learning) tools.”

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