When Apple gets on board, you know it’s a big deal (or will quickly become a big deal). They weren’t the first to make a portable .mp3 player, but the iPod was better designed and better built than everything that came before it, and Apple cornered the market. Apple wasn’t the first to build a smartphone anchored by a touchscreen, but again, the iPhone was superior to everything that came before, and it propelled Apple to become the world’s most valuable company. So too was the case with the iPad, Apple TV, the Apple Watch, and a host of other hardware and software standards along the way.
None of this is to say that Apple is the best at everything it sets its mind to; what I am saying, however, is that if Apple devotes its time and resources to a new piece of hardware or technology, the industry is almost assuredly heading in that direction.
Apple announced, in a major way, that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning are the future, and Apple has thrown its hat in the ring.
How do we know this? Well, for one, Apple is going head-to-head with two of the most widely adopted pieces of consumer AI technology — Amazon Echo and Google Home. Apple was the first company to put a functional digital, voice-based assistant in your pocket. However, Google and Amazon both beat Apple into the home with their voice assistants. And, as the Internet of Things becomes closer and closer to reality, the central touch point for many homes will be the digital assistant binding those devices together. With Apple’s HomePod, the company has announced it’s taking this market seriously, and that it wants to make Siri an even more integral part of our lives.
In another huge development, Apple released a professional grade desktop workstation to court the creative class in a real way again (with no Mac Pro updates in years, lackluster Macbook Pro upgrades recently, and the consumerization of many professional apps like Final Cut, it’s about time). While this may not say anything about AI necessarily, the step to appease the most demanding of users reaps other rewards — namely, a workstation capable of localized machine learning. Per Wired:
The iMac Pro can have processors up to 22 teraflops, memory up to 128 gigs, and as much as 4 terabytes of storage. There’s a new thermal cooling system with two fans that seems like it has its work cut out for it… The whole thing starts at $5,000, and is almost definitely more machine than you’ll ever need—Apple intends it for machine learning, VR, and real-time 3-D rendering. Not for Netflix. Or at least, not only for Netflix.
On the mobile front, Apple has come out with two updates that will further the company’s commitment to AI. First, it has integrated a new feature into Photos “to automatically sort your library by event or detect who’s in your pictures.” Fast Company reports the “Memories feature, which uses AI to form custom presentations of photos and videos, can more quickly scan the library to identify things like events and people, Apple says. You can now watch imagery in portrait mode or display mode, too.”
The second mobile update is aimed straight at developers with the release of Core ML, a new machine learning API to make mobile AI faster. The Verge breaks it down:
Core ML will support a number of essential machine learning tools, including all sorts of neural networks (deep, recurrent, and convolutional), as well as linear models and tree ensembles. And because this is Apple, there’s also a privacy focus, too — Core ML is for on-device processing, meaning the data that developers use to improve user experience won’t leave customers’ phones and tablets.
And finally, Apple is even baking AI into the smallest of Apple’s packages, the Apple Watch. The new watchface, “powered by Siri automatically displays the information that’s most relevant to you, based on the apps you use most,” Wired reports. “Siri will automatically pull up the next item on your calendar, your reminders, even photo memories to remind you of that adorable picture you took of your dog last year. WatchOS 4 also brings new fitness features, like motivational messages to help you hit your exercise goals and integrations with gym equipment to better track your workouts.”
Moral of the story? If Apple puts its full institutional weight behind something, that generally means the market is moving in that direction in a big way. No one is surprised that AI is a huge growth area for the technology field, but the speed at which it has come to dominate the innovation conversation is surely surprising to many. Siri might have been consumers’ first real-world interaction with AI, and Apple is betting it can take that field to the next level, and outflank its rivals.
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