Apple’s Tim Cook speaks on Apple’s A.I. plans

Thinks machine intelligence will improve lives

Apple, iOS, Tim Cook, Artificial intelligence, iPhone, iPad, Maps
Credit: C3PO c/o Roger Shultz/Flickr

Pixar founder George Lucas may have given the world the word “Droid” before he sold the company to Apple’s Steve Jobs, but Apple CEO Tim Cook makes no secret that he wants his company to play its part in making intelligence in machines a reality.

Smart business

Cook talked up Apple’s efforts in augmented reality just last week. This week he’s spilling at least some of the beans on his company’s plans for Artificial Intelligence, though his vision seems more connected to machine intelligence and pattern recognition than the evolution of a smart bot like C3PO, at least right now. “A.I. is horizontal in nature, running across all products,” he told Nikkei. He said it is used "in ways that most people don't even think about."

What kinds of uses is he talking about? Cook gave us three specific examples, all of which belong firmly in the pattern recognition and machine learning fold, rather than the neural intelligence bracket:

  • A.I. to increase battery life
  • Apple Music recommendation
  • Remember where you parked the car

Which all sounds pretty promising until you recognize he actually didn’t tell us anything at all – Apple’s already doing all of these things in iOS.

‘Deep engineering’

The company has bigger plans. Cook visited Japan last week and while there revealed plans to open a new R&D base in Yokohoma, Japan, later this year. This will supplement its other R&D bases focused on A.I., with one thought to be in Seattle following its earlier purchase of Turi. The CEO said the new Japanese R&D center would be for “deep engineering,” which could mean anything but I can’t help thinking about deep learning systems, based entirely on the way he phrased that.

Deep learning systems are the kind of neural network intelligence IBM has been working on with Watson. These self-learning machines are able to acquire new skills and make autonomous decisions, which distinguishes them from dumb, script-based bots you may find on Fcebook, responsive voice assistant solutions like Siri or single-use robots used on production lines.

The idea is you can put deep learning inside anything and it will be able to improve what it does over time, responding to your needs, the local situation and contextual events. The ability to respond to events in a contextual fashion is what will eventually separate truly smart machine intelligence to what we have at present, though evolving these solutions will take much more time than the hype would have you believe.

Hype machine

The hype surrounding A.I. right now actually does all the firms involved in it a disservice. The modest kind of aims Cook told Nikkei about are tangible and possible using current technologies, but the hype machine means people already expect flawed man-machines desperate to open the cabin doors for some geezer called “Hal.” That’s not to say even the machine intelligence that’s being created at this moment won’t leave millions on the planet unemployed – it will, and right now there seems little political will to deal with that looming problem.

Returning to Apple’s adventures in A.I., Cook noted that his company has teamed up with IBM to develop health care solutions for the elderly. That’s part of an international effort on the part of Apple, with big hospitals placing iPads and other Apple kit on wards, providing everything from patient information to patient entertainment and more. When it comes to care for the elderly, there are implications for use of Apple Watch as a tracking device for those suffering memory loss, medication reminders or even as panic alarms for those wishing to live independent lives.

On another tangent to machine intelligence, Cook also discussed the Didi investment. The ride sharing economy is of “great interest to us,” he said. “[China’s] middle class will want a much better way of moving around.”

The implication across all of this is that while the technologies that will enable truly autonomous road transport, Memories identification in Photos, proactive health care monitoring or even the place you parked your car can all be seen as some form of A.I., Apple’s intention is to deploy intelligent assistance in subtle yet profound ways.

Apple’s A.I. will not be technology for the sake of it and the company wants to protect your privacy while it brings you convenience. There are some say Apple is late to this party. They are wrong. The evolutoin of real machine intelligence is going to take time yet, and while first stage machine intelligence is already transforming lives (for good and for ill) those who claim victory in that race today should simmer down a little; this industry's barely left the starting grid, the finishing line is some way ahead.

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