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Tim Cook says Apple doesn’t need to sacrifice user privacy to improve its AI

Published Oct 26th, 2016 8:00PM EDT
Apple Privacy

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Siri has been lambasted in the press lately, with no shortage of tech observers opining that Apple’s personal intelligent assistant lags woefully behind competitors like Google Assistant. Part of the problem, some believe, is that Apple’s dutiful approach to user privacy fundamentally and detrimentally impacts the effectiveness of Siri.

When asked about Siri during the company’s earnings call yesterday, Cook reiterated Apple’s commitment to privacy and emphatically scoffed at the notion that Siri’s ability to handle queries is at all being affected by Apple’s stance on privacy.

DON’T MISS: The difference between iPhone users and Android users

The question leading into Cook’s response reads in part: “There’s been an increasing focus on artificial intelligence both in new smartphones like the new Pixel and also some of the home assistants like the Amazon Echo… How do you think about balancing AI with your focus on privacy?

“In terms of the balance of privacy and AI,” Cook answered, “this is a long conversation, but at a high level, this is a false tradeoff. People would like you to believe you have to give up privacy to have AI do something for you, but we don’t buy that. It might take more 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 between privacy and security. You should have both. You shouldn’t have to make a choice.”

It’s a fair point, but at a certain level, there’s no getting around the fact that an intelligent assistant that knows more about you, whether it’s via your email or via your shopping history, is more likely to be of assistance to you than an intelligent assistant operating with significantly less data.

Speaking to this point, you might recall a Reuters report from this past March where we learned that Apple has a secret privacy team where a group of three “privacy czars” and a top executive must approve every type of data collection before a given feature goes live.

Key principles include keeping customer data on their devices – rather than in the cloud, on Apple servers – and isolating various types of data so they cannot be united to form profiles of customers.

Debates over new uses of data at Apple typically take at least a month and have dragged on for more than a year, former employees said.

Apple’s philosophy in this regard can sometimes result in limited functionality. For example, the machine learning Apple baked into iOS 10 does an amazing job of applying facial recognition algorithms to people as well as identifying objects that appear in photos. That’s all well and good, but because Apple doesn’t want to keep such data in the cloud, any facial recognition data or the like collected on your phone won’t be transferred over to those very same photos on your Mac.

Speaking to Reuters on the topic, analyst Bob O’Donnell raised the point that “the value of a service is the ability to personalize it” and that “the only way you can personalize it is with knowledge about an individual’s preferences.”

Rumor has it that Apple has some interesting surprises in the works with Siri, so it will definitely be interesting to keep an eye on this space in the months ahead.

Yoni Heisler Contributing Writer

Yoni Heisler has been writing about Apple and the tech industry at large with over 15 years of experience. A life long expert Mac user and Apple expert, his writing has appeared in Edible Apple, Network World, MacLife, Macworld UK, and TUAW.

When not analyzing the latest happenings with Apple, Yoni enjoys catching Improv shows in Chicago, playing soccer, and cultivating new TV show addictions.

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