Apple poached Google’s head of search and artificial intelligence (AI), John Giannandrea, on Tuesday, a move that could help it catch up to its long-time rival. The executive will now lead Apple’s “machine learning and AI strategy” division, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook.
The hire could turn the tide for Apple as it tries to improve its aging voice assistant to compete with the likes of the Google Assistant and Alexa. Once the biggest smartphone innovation of its time, Siri is now the butt of many jokes and considered much less advanced than its rivals. Apple as a whole has put less emphasis on AI than Google, which spent the last few years integrating the controversial technology into its products.
“Our technology must be infused with the values we all hold dear,” Cook said in an email to staff obtained by the New York Times. “John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.”
Giannandrea joined Google in 2010 when it purchased Metaweb, where he served as CTO. The startup developed a data storage infrastructure for the web called Freebase, described as an “open, shared database of the world’s knowledge.” He advocated for ethics in technology but doesn’t believe the doomsday hype surrounding AI, unlike Tesla CEO Elon Musk.
“What I object to is this assumption that we will leap to some kind of superintelligent system that will then make humans obsolete,” he said in an interview with MIT Technology Review. “I understand why people are concerned about it but I think it’s gotten way too much airtime. I just see no technological basis as to why this is imminent at all.”
With the new executive onboard, Apple may finally be able to expand its AI efforts by hiring more talent and developing new methods for object recognition and machine learning. One disadvantage unique to Apple is its unwavering dedication to customer privacy. Because the company doesn’t collect as much information as its rivals, it can’t work with specific data sets needed to train AI. Apple says it’s developing new methods to advance algorithms without compromising customer privacy.
While Giannandrea’s departure from Google could be a major blow to the company, it already filled his role with veteran Jeff Dean, who co-created Google Brain, a deep learning artificial intelligence unit that worked on an image enhancement tool and AI-driven encryption system, among other futuristic technologies.