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Tim Cook: You can have AI *and* privacy

As part of his Apple Q4 2016 conference call opening remarks, CEO Tim Cook dove into how Apple is using artificial intelligence, machine learning, and computer vision:

With our latest operating systems, machine learning is making our products and services smarter, more intuitive, and even more personal. We've been using these technologies for years to create better user experiences, and we've also been investing heavily — both through R&D and acquisitions.Today, machine learning drives improvements in countless features across our products. It enables the Proactive features in iOS 10, which offer suggestions on which app you might want to use or which contacts you might want to include in an email. Our camera and photo software uses advanced face recognition to help you take better pictures, and object and scene recognition to make them easier to sort and find. Machine learning makes the fitness features of Apple Watch more accurate, and even helps extend battery life across our products.Machine learning continually helps Siri get even smarter in areas such as understanding natural language. We've extended Siri to work in many new ways by opening it to developers, and most recently by making Siri available to Mac users in macOS Sierra. We're already seeing great momentum in just the first few weeks from developers leveraging the Siri and speech APIs, and we're very happy with the engagement it's driving with Siri.

The part on how machine learning is helping improve battery life has previous led me to speculate on what Apple could be doing to burn AI into their already industry-leading silicon.

An important differentiator, either a positive for personal privacy or a negative for performance, depending on how you look at it, remains Apple's stance on protecting customer data. While competitors now use hardware tied to services, like Amazon's Echo and Google's Pixel and Home, as candy coatings around massive data harvesting operations, Apple has steadfastly refused to do likewise. It's not how the company makes money, and beyond that — it's not even something they believe is needed.

Cook, again:

In terms of the balance between privacy and AI, I — and this is a long conversation. But at a high level, I think it's a false trade-off that people would like you to believe, that you have to give up privacy in order to have AI do something for you. We don't buy that. It may take a different kind of work, it might take more thinking, but I don't think we should throw our privacy away.It's sort of like the age-old argument about privacy versus security: We should have both! It shouldn't be making a choice. And so, that, at a high level, is how we see it.

It echoes senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi's said on John Gruber's The Talk Show last fall:

The other thing is, there's this idea that, well, if you don't have the data, how would you ever learn? Well, turns out, if you want to get pictures of mountains, you don't need to get it out of people's personal photo libraries.Like, we found out that we could find some pictures of some mountains!We did some tough detective work, and we found 'em.

In other words, competing services don't need our data to work, but the companies that make them want our data, and build AI to get it.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

27 Comments
  • " In other words, competing services don't need our data to work, but the companies that make them want our data, and build AI to get it." - I am not the brightest bloke around but Apple does need some of your Data otherwise Siri wouldn't be able to do some of the stuff she does, I am missing something?
    Interesting article not sure agree with it. Until Apple shows there AI working and working well without eating lots of Data I shall remain sceptical. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • Your question is a good one. Siri does use your data. The differentiator is that she only uses data on the device on which she is installed and does not upload that data into the cloud for general consumption. That sounds great, but I am not convinced that this approach will ultimately be as useful as the data harvesting companies. One example is that I am an Office 365 user. Tons of data is collected about your work habits to feed something called the Office Graph. That is being used to generate a ton of useful productivity features, and much more to come. I don't see how one can generate those kind of options without combining your activities from all the devices you use to do your work. Same goes for Alexa in the personal space. Creating a compelling experience requires a lot more than identifying mountains in pictures. What I really want is an AI that combines work and personal data (and yes, I know a lot of people probably do NOT want that). Microsoft's Cortana has some promise, but Apple will never open up their OS's enough to make her useful. Apple would have to violate their (rather refreshing) security philosophy. As a result Cortana on iOS is like a limited bolt-on. Since they would have to pry my iPhone from my cold dead hands, it doesn't look like I will get my wish anytime soon. :) Sent from the iMore App
  • To put a finer point on what you said. “General consumption”, but I’ll tell you right now she sure as sugar uploads tons of info, TONS. From the Apple privacy policy;
    We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, referrer URL, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.
    We may collect information regarding customer activities on our website, iCloud services, our iTunes Store, App Store, Mac App Store, App Store for Apple TV and iBooks Stores and from our other products and services. This information is aggregated and used to help us provide more useful information to our customers and to understand which parts of our website, products, and services are of most interest. Aggregated data is considered non‑personal information for the purposes of this Privacy Policy.
    We may collect and store details of how you use our services, including search queries. This information may be used to improve the relevancy of results provided by our services. Except in limited instances to ensure quality of our services over the Internet, such information will not be associated with your IP address.
    With your explicit consent, we may collect data about how you use your device and applications in order to help app developers improve their apps. Here’s the thing though. I’d bet money, (lots of it and I mean my money too), that Apple buy data from services and companies that they knowingly harvest this kind of info. To me that makes them almost as bad.
    They’re kind of saying we might not do anything questionable but we don't mind if you do it on our behalf.
  • great point. Yes It is highly likely that Apple purchases data from the various mining companies. However, based on the trust we want to have for those data mining companies, presumably said data is (hopefully) anonymous, and used to identify trends and not individuals Sent from the iMore App
  • Maybe but what I’m saying is that if there is a market for data mining that you disagree with, you're part of the problem if you buy from those companies.
    Apple takes money from Google, ($1B annually I think), and then moans about their lack of privacy.
    Hypocrisy in its finest and most cloaked form.
  • No it isn't an issue for me. I'm all in on Office 365. I'm trying (somewhat unsuccessfully) to say that I think Apple is tying its own hands. I love the concept of Apple's security principles, but I don't see how they can build the same compelling use cases that the data miners have and will only improve into the future Sent from the iMore App
  • Thanks for sparking a great discussion!
  • "Apple takes money from Google, ($1B annually I think), and then moans about their lack of privacy." Perhaps I'm dense, but are you stating that Apple is buying personal information about users collected by Google? I don't think so. And Apple doesn't "take" money from Google. I think that 1 billion dollars is how much Google "pays" Apple to make Google the default search engine on iOS. Others have stated that Apple somehow charges Google for the personal information that Google collects from users on iOS. But that's not Apple buying information from Google. That's Apple getting paid for Google's behavior.
  • "Here’s the thing though. I’d bet money, (lots of it and I mean my money too), that Apple buy data from services and companies that they knowingly harvest this kind of info. To me that makes them almost as bad." Seriously? You make a wild-assed guess and then convict Apple based on that guess?
  • I like the approach Apple taking with security, particularly when dealing with AI. AI is something people want and considering personal security when coming with an implementation plan is important. A good approach is keeping data on the device and not having it going back and forth on Apple (or other series) servers. It will be interesting to see how this develops with Apple as well as other companies in the AI space!
  • "AI is something people want..." I disagree. Perhaps it's just semantics, but I don't think people want "AI" specifically. They just want good information. Implementation is secondary.
  • "It's sort of like the age-old argument about privacy versus security: We should have both! It shouldn't be making a choice. And so, that, at a high level, is how we see it."
    He's right. You don't get a choice. You either live in the walled garden or you don't. For me, I want the choice of what data I share so that MY services are vastly improved. I don't need Mommy and Daddy controlling my phone for me. That's what I want out of an iOS device. Posted via the iMore App for Android
  • All I want is for Apple to open up their AI to 3rd party competitors, e.g, Google, HERE WeGo. Don't care how that happens, just do it. This way I can find something else to whine about.
  • You trust that Apple is truly keeping you private on your device. Why would you not trust Google to keep you private on their servers? I don't really get this. How many Google accounts were hacked, how much information was stolen from their servers? Is there proof that no apple data is transmitted somewhere? My point being- if you trust one company, why not the other?
  • Well it's tough to argue with Apple fans... They act as if Apple is really caring about privacy. They are all corporations worrying about their bottom line and Apple just plays the privacy marketing card as long as they can.
    Google cares about privacy as much as Apple or any other company. Sent from the iMore App
  • "Google cares about privacy as much as Apple or any other company." I'm not an expert by any means, but I do remember reading somewhere about the amount of data that developers receive about a user whenever that user purchases an app from the Google Play store. With Apple, the developer gets paid, but very little else. With Android apps, developers get nearly everything they know about that user. Or so it seemed when I was reading that article way back when. Maybe I should go Google for it... http://articles.latimes.com/2013/feb/14/business/la-fi-tn-google-under-f...
    http://www.csoonline.com/article/2132939/privacy/google-play-shares-too-... Has this been changed?
  • Your point is well made. To be honest I am of the opinion that I want to trust cloud data companies (Google, Amazon, Microsoft) to get the benefits of what they can offer. I fear that Apple will sooner or later get left behind in the next generation of AI due to their self-imposed limitations. Having said that, if I were to follow your point, if I trust one company AND the other, it is clear that Apple continues to provide the safer option. Let's trust both (actually several) companies for a moment. Let's say all of them are truly honest, trustworthy, and customer-focused. In that scenario, which do you think is the easiest to be compromised? The phone in your pocket, or your data in a cloud-based black box on the internet? I'm just playing devil's advocate here. I actually am in favor of the Google/Amazon/Microsoft model. I think they offer more attractive options. I think it is up to you, the consumer, to decide which is more important to you.
  • Well said. You're right, while I think both the cloud black box and your phone can be hacked, the chances that your phone in particular will be a target are small in comparison to the cloud box. I bet nobody tried to hack my android phone, while somebody is constantly probing Google's servers for vulnerabilities. We live in an interesting world!
  • The one area is with government. With Apple if there is a subpoena they don't have that information on their servers to hand over. You are only at risk if you are using Touch ID (since the government can compel you to unlock device via fingerprint) otherwise you have control. Google does have that info and can be compelled to hand it over and you would have no idea that they did so.
  • Fair point, I actually realized this some time after I wrote the comment. It's interesting how the entity we really fear is not some malicious hacking group, but the US government (I am Canadian btw).
  • "My point being- if you trust one company, why not the other?" I guess to start with, it's because I know that one of those companies - Google, makes their living off of my information. The other - Apple, doesn't. Google is an information/advertising company. It's what they do. It's ALL they do. Everything else is about gathering that information.
  • "In other words, competing services don't need our data to work, but the companies that make them want our data, and build AI to get it." If you want to believe that, it is said by the leader
  • I do not think it is that simple. These are legitimate debates. I think that Tim Cook's comments about cloud companies building AI's to get your data are disingenuous. Apple has a considerable reputation to uphold, and I value that reputation. To his credit, there is no question that the cloud companies are harvesting anonymous data, and making considerable sums of money in the process (what company WOULDN'T pay to know about the habits of their potential consumers?). My (totally irrelevant) opinion is similar to the argument made by the author, but with a different spin. Why CAN'T a company safely harvest anonymous data for profit AND use it to provide an outstanding user experience?
  • Tim Cook has said a lot of stuff in recent years that wasn't true. He keeps saying the number of switchers to Apple from Android continues to grow with no data to support it, yet third party, unbiased market share numbers show they have dropped down to 11% marketshare world wide. Now he is spouting off great things about AI, yet Siri is annually rated as the worst of the big 3 mobile assistants and it is limited to on device data. They will be left behind by that self-induced restriction. Posted from my Nexus 6P
  • Well, according to a wikileaks email, they are happy and willing to share meta data with govts and have 24/7 team for that. So, yeah, there goes that logic down the drain. In essence they have all they need. Seems more like a marketing ploy to me.
  • All well and good, but Apple is well behind in AI. All Cook is doing is spinning the negatives into a positive. Ballmeresque
  • As long as it can be turned off with no decline in the local 's device functionality, I'm good. If anything, machine learning and any other kind of data collection apparatus should be an app that has to be downloaded by the owner of the hardware. It should not be built in to operating systems.