Think about the hottest, most competitive sectors that the big tech companies are all chasing in some fashion: Home automation. Autonomous driving. Augmented reality. The thread that runs through each of these business opportunities? Artificial intelligence.
As we explore in our companion piece about AI as a service, the tech giants who have a cloud computing business are adding AI services on top in an effort to differentiate their offerings. But they’re saving the best stuff for themselves, using artificial intelligence as a strategic weapon to help achieve their outsize ambitions.
Apple has been the least vocal of the big tech companies in explaining how it thinks about and uses AI, but critics have interpreted the company’s silence as evidence of it being “behind” rivals such as Amazon and Google. As a result, Apple executives have lately been more willing to discuss AI, both to reassure early adopters and recruit talent. “Siri isn’t just a voice assistant,” said Craig Federighi, SVP of software engineering, during Apple’s June 2017 developer event. “With Siri intelligence, it understands context. It understands your interests. It understands how you use your device. It understands what you want next.” Although tech cognoscenti will also dismiss Siri as less advanced than rival voice assistants, it has several hundred million users and has done more to popularize AI in consumer tech than arguably anything else.
Apple’s approach to AI can best be seen in the new chip in the iPhone 8s and iPhone X, the A11 Bionic. The A11 includes machine-learning frameworks that allow developers to incorporate AI functions into their apps and have them processed quickly using only the device’s computing power. The AI isn’t the top note but it’s there behind the scenes to make apps better and strengthen users’ connection to iPhone.
Similarly, Apple’s forthcoming iPhone X and HomePod, its new smart speaker, also rely on what should be thought of AI features yet they aren’t marketed as such. The new iPhone’s FaceID is a paradigmatic AI function (In 2016, Apple acquired a facial-recognition software startup called Emotient for a rumored $100 million), and HomePod purports to be able to adapt its settings based on a room’s acoustics and where it’s placed. That, too, is machine learning in a strict constructionist definition of the phrase.
As AI becomes more a part of everyone’s lives, Apple’s vociferous defense of user privacy will likely only resonate more with users.
Google, by contrast, has rebranded itself as an “AI-first” company in the last 18 months, under the direction of CEO Sundar Pichai. As one of his predecessors, and Alphabet chairman, Eric Schmidt wrote in January, “Technology is now on the cusp of taking us into a magical age, in which machine learning can prevent blindness, translate any language with expert skill, or even save endangered species from extinction. Machine learning is beginning to help us solve problems today that we simply couldn’t solve on our own.”
Google’s emphasis on AI can increasingly be seen throughout its products. Gmail suggests rapid replies to emails. Google Photos can create animations, suggest a photo filter for a particularly good shot, or even distinguish your cherished photos from everyday ones in an effort to clean up your image library. Since YouTube turned to Google Brain (another of the company’s AI-research arms) to tune its video recommendations, it has increased average watch time by 50% each of the last three years. No company has more data or more machine-learning resources, now being put to work in services that billions use everyday.
Speaking of billions of users, Facebook is also rather vocal about how it’s using AI to improve its products. Facebook introduced Photo Tag Suggest in late 2010, using facial recognition to identify the people in users’ uploaded images and facilitate sharing. CEO Mark Zuckerberg listed AI as one of the company’s 10-year bets in 2014 (along with universal connectivity and virtual reality), making clear that he believed AI should replicate—and exceed—human senses such as vision and hearing so that Facebook can better understand its users and serve them.
Zuckerberg has invested to put Facebook at the forefront of AI research, and while its tangible applications tend to be less fantastical than those of its rivals, when applied across more than 2 billion users, they’re as transformative as any. In August 2017, the company announced that it had switched to using AI to handle all of its translation services, and it’s now processing 4.5 billion requests daily. In addition to continued advances in image recognition, including within videos, much of Facebook’s most visible AI work has been in Facebook Messenger, where the company has made a large bet on natural-language processing powering conversational bots to handle routine customer-service queries and the like.
Although Facebook, like Apple, does not sell its AI capabilities as a service as Google and Amazon do, the company does apply AI to its advertising business. “Now you can put a creative message out there, and AI can help you figure out who will be most interested,” Zuckerberg said on his July 2017 earnings call with financial analysts. “A lot of the time you don’t even need to target now because AI can do it more precisely and better than we can manually.” This statement can be viewed in a less than glowing light as new information is revealed relating to the investigations into Russian involvement in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, but the fact remains that Facebook would not be able to achieve its significant revenue growth without AI playing a meaningful role.
More than any of its rivals, Amazon has elevated the sense of possibility for AI in everyday consumers’ lives, from automated drone deliveries to its game-changing voice-powered Alexa service within its Echo devices. Amazon has created a wholly new consumer-electronics category, one that Google and Apple have now entered and rumors persist that Facebook will be next to offer an AI-based home assistant. Amazon has continued to push Alexa forward, creating new context for her to enter customers’ dressing rooms and bedrooms, where earlier Echo devices may have previously been present only in the kitchen or family room. Meanwhile, Amazon will continue to use AI quietly to improve its efficiency in doing what it already does well as the largest ecommerce destination for millions.