Compared to Silicon Valley giants like Facebook and Google, Apple's AI research projects have been largely inscrutable. But now, that looks like it's about to change.
Apple has hired esteemed Carnegie Mellon computer science professor Russ Salakhutdinov as its director of artificial intelligence research, with plans to build a team of researchers for the company in the coming months. Salakhutdinov will remain in his post as an associate professor at CMU, Apple confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
And in a move uncharacteristic of Apple's historically secretive approach to its AI efforts, Salakhutdinov tweeted news of his hiring along with a link to his new team's job listings.
Researchers replied to Salakhutdinov expressing skepticism about whether or not Apple, which is typically quiet about its artificial intelligence and machine learning efforts, would open itself up to the larger, more collaborative AI research community. The unexpected tweet seems to be part of Apple's plan for recruiting for AI researchers — who are so hot right now in Silicon Valley.
Siri, Apple's big public-facing AI technology, has faced widespread criticism for not being smart enough, especially compared to rival AI assistants. Just last week, Walt Mossberg, executive editor of The Verge and editor at large of Recode, asked, "Why does Siri seem so dumb?" in a recent column.
And Apple's competitors have made very public strides into artificial intelligence, including being aggressive about hiring AI experts to take their research further. Google has been publishing hundreds of papers on machine learning. It's also created a suite of products for varying levels of engagement: the Go champion DeepMind, the Siri-esque Google Now, the open-source TensorFlow for developers, and the new texting bot Allo, to name a few. Amazon's Echo speaker, whose key features rely on the voice-controlled AI assistant Alexa, is rapidly reaching customer demographics outside of traditional smartphone markets. Facebook introduced its own personal assistant, M, in late 2015, just a year after Microsoft debuted Cortana.
Meanwhile, Apple has kept a low profile at the annual Neural Information Processing Systems Conference, which is the event of the season for researchers and companies developing and studying artificial intelligence. Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and IBM have all been active participants.
But Apple is racing to catch up. Before hiring Salakhutdinov, the company acquired three machine learning companies in the past year: Perceptio, Turi, and Tuplejump. And just this week, CEO Tim Cook told Nikkei Asian Review that Apple plans to open an AI research center in Yokohama, Japan, later this year. "There is an incredible future ahead for AI and the iPhone," Cook said.
Blake Montgomery is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.
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