AI is incompatible with the Apple Tim Cook has built

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
AI is incompatible with the Apple Tim Cook has built
The idea that artificial intelligence is the next big thing in computing is pretty well established at this point. All major software companies around have said as much and we've seen the visions of big guns like Google, Microsoft and Facebook for the future of AI. Apple, however, has been a little more hesitant about making big proclamations about AI until now. 

In an interview with the Washington Post, Cook made it clear that he understands the value of AI and also made it clear that he sees Apple as being a major player in terms of AI. When I saw the interview, I had to read it a few times to make sure I had read it correctly, because the idea of Apple as a major player in AI is completely incompatible with the privacy-focused version of Apple that Tim Cook has built. 

At its most basic level, AI is a way to glean novel and interesting information from the huge amounts of data that we all generate constantly. Given this, it makes perfect sense that a company like Google -- whose stated goal is to organize the world's data, and a company built on gathering as much data about you as possible -- would make a big push into AI. Apple has consistently placed itself as the antithesis of that idea. 

Privacy vs AI

Apple's reputation is built on privacy. Cook has boasted time and again about how Apple either doesn't gather your data or doesn't gather it without multiple notifications and opt-in messages. Cook's Apple was even poised and ready to take on the FBI in order to protect user privacy. This idea of privacy cannot exist in a world of AI. 

Apple is obviously going to try. It showed off Differential Privacy at WWDC as a way to collect data on users while still respecting privacy and this will work to a certain extent but in very limited ways. Differential Privacy will allow Apple to use some AI to make general keyboard predictions and autocorrections better and maybe even general predictions in terms of navigation for Apple Maps. But, that's the real issue -- anonymized data can only lead to general predictions. 

The best promises of AI and the most exciting things we've seen for AI come from hyper-individual recommendations and learning. At Google I/O, the promise of Allo was to be able to instantly suggest relevant information or allow for searches based on what you had typed. The only way this would be possible is by allowing Google servers access to read that data (although Google will instantly delete the chat records). If you turn on the privacy focused end-to-end encrypted Incognito mode of Allo, those special features disappear. 

At its best, AI can take data including your preferences, location, interests, habits, and history, mix in those same findings from others and offer you something that is either unexpected and interesting or helpful and timely, while being automated and seamless. At its best, AI churns through the huge amounts of data we create -- intentionally and unintentionally -- to find patterns that make every process easier, faster, and filled with added value. 

Tim Cook may want Apple to be a part of that revolution, but Apple will be handicapped in the AI race as long as the company stands by its identity as the anti-Google that holds up user privacy by not gathering all of that data. Cook can certainly pivot and take Apple down the path of data gathering and AI, but that will be a hard sell to the hundreds of millions who have bought iPhones under the promise that their data was private even from the eyes of Apple. 

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