Apple hires Google executive to catch rivals in AI race

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Apple Inc. hired Google’s top artificial intelligence executive to help the iPhone maker catch rivals in one of the most-important fields of modern technology.

John Giannandrea, who will report to Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook, has much work to do. Apple, which pioneered smartphones and tablets, has lagged behind Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Microsoft Corp. in AI.

The Cupertino, California, company started its push into artificial intelligence with the 2011 debut of the Siri voice-controlled digital assistant. It added new features like advanced photo search and predictive text messages to the iPhone in recent years, but has made little progress, especially compared to Google.

Apple’s strong stance on user privacy has left some AI experts wondering if the company is missing out on opportunities in the field. Techniques like machine learning require massive amounts of data to automatically improve. Google has used mountains of data for years to inject AI features into services like Gmail, Google Photos and the Google Assistant. Even with the hiring of Giannandrea, who worked at Google for about eight years, Apple appears to be sticking with its privacy stance.

“John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal," Cook wrote in an email to employees announcing the appointment. The move was earlier reported by the New York Times.

On Monday, Google confirmed that Giannandrea would be stepping down, but said he’d be remaining at the company in another position.

Giannandrea isn’t Apple’s first big hire in the field, but he is the most notable. In 2016, Apple recruited Russ Salakhutdinov -- a professor -- to work on machine learning. Apple also acquired machine learning and data analysis firms and opened a research and development office in Seattle focused on the field.

Craig Federighi, a senior software executive at Apple, took over the Siri division last year. Giannandrea will focus on AI technology that supports Siri, while Federighi will likely still oversee the user facing components.

Giannandrea joined Google in 2010 when the search giant bought his company Metaweb, which was working on what’s called a "knowledge graph" -- a tool that gives direct answers to search queries. Search is a key component of Apple’s own software and services efforts.

In 2016, he was named the head of a new combined division at Google, pairing its powerful search unit and artificial intelligence divisions, after Amit Singhal, Google’s longtime search czar, left. A soft-spoken Scotsman, Giannandrea stepped into the public in recent years, speaking at several events about AI. He has criticized AI alarmists, like Tesla CEO Elon Musk, arguing that the benefits of the technology far outweigh its drawbacks.

Bloomberg News
Artificial intelligence Apple Google