Future Apple smart speakers, like HomePod, might be much more data privacy focused. (Photo by Justin … [+]
Apple has reportedly paid $200 million to acquire Seattle-based artificial intelligence company Xnor.ai, which specialises in edge-based AI.
The purchase is one of many for Apple, which has become adept at vacuuming up tech startups, but it also gives us a glimpse into the company’s thinking when it comes to future devices.
Xnor.ai’s work on hyper-efficient, low-power AI that doesn’t require powerful processing or a connection to the cloud (processing locally on-device instead), neatly slots into a few areas Apple is currently working on.
Whilst Apple hasn’t – and doesn’t typically – comment on why it acquires certain companies and how they fit into its future roadmap, we can speculate on how Xnor.ai’s work fits in to the master plan.
Performance improvements from handling tasks such has natural language processing (Siri), or facial recognition are interesting. Speeding up – by a matter of milliseconds – the decisions a driverless ar makes, for example, has obvious benefits. But what’s caught my attention is the privacy implications of on-device AI.
Whilst Siri has fallen behind Amazon’s Alexa and, in particular, Google’s Assistant – Apple might have its sights on an entirely different goal with this acquisition: giving users control of extremely personal data.
The huge amount of information that’s required to deliver a service like Assistant also means handing that information over. If you take a look at the ”Web and App Activity” tracking setting on your Android handset, you’ll see that Google essentially monitors and stores almost everything you do on your phone, Nest product or Assistant enabled device. The trade off, of course, is hyper personal recommendations and next generation technology like Duplex.
The data you hand over makes Assistant good. In fact, many of Google’s products barely function in any intelligent capacity if you switch off the Web & App Activity tracking setting – turning things like the Google Home into a simple bluetooth speaker.
This level of intimacy with a faceless company might not sit well with some and Apple is likely looking to capitalise on that. From taking swipes at rivals Facebook and Google on data collection, to the on-device AI that already takes place on iPhones to repeatedly resisting requests to weaken encryption on its devices specifically for law enforcement – Apple has long made clear its position on data privacy.
Some of this may very well be grandstanding that plays well to privacy-concerned onlookers, especially considering Apple’s use of Google tech and the money it receives to do so, but Apple is clearly on a different path to its rivals.
In one corner we have Google breaking new ground by building AI that can book restaurant tables on your behalf by calling and speaking like a real human to said restaurant, or Facebook’s massive investment AI-powered hardware like Portal. In exchange they need your data to create and improve these products.
In the other corner, we have Apple, which may not be close to building a rival service like Duplex, but if it does the information may never leave your phone. The same goes for facial recognition data embedded in future Apple security cameras or any other AI processing that would typically require sending data to be processed, stored, analysed and used – for whatever purpose – far away from your device.
Both Google and Facebook have made noises about improving the privacy credentials of their products over the last year, but it’s clear that Apple is on a different path. And if concerns around data privacy become a key – or core – factor in purchasing smart devices, then Apple is likely best placed to satisfy those buyers because of acquisitions like Xnor.ai.
More on Forbes