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September 9, 2016

Apple Looks to Machine Learning to Improve Siri

As it pulls the plug on iPhone jacks, Apple is making what appears to be a concerted move into machine learning as it seeks to upgrade its next operating system to improve its Siri virtual assistant along with emerging machine learning applications expected to find their way into other Apple devices.

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) watchers point to last month’s acquisition of machine learning startup Turi for about $200 million as another sign that the consumer electronics giants is laying the groundwork for a machine learning push. The Seattle-based startup’s machine learning platform focuses on rapid development of real-time services and applications based on embedded machine learning models.

Observers note that the acquisition coincides with the release later this month of Apple’s mobile iOS 10, which is expected to include Siri upgrades to among other things improve searches and help write text messages.

Apple’s acquisition of Turi, a University of Washington spinoff, is seen as another major step toward leveraging machine learning in applications such as Siri. “Consumers have come to expect personalized content that learns from their behaviors and reacts in real time. If anything falls short, they’re quick to take their business elsewhere,” asserts Kerry Liu, CEO of Rubikloud, a Toronto-based developer of machine learning platform for retailers.

“Apple has recognized the need for machine learning in order to meet consumer demand at such a large scale,” Liu added.

Apple executives reportedly agree. “Machine learning is enabling us to say yes to some things that in past years we would have said no to,” Apple marketing chief Phil Schiller told the technology writer Steven Levy shortly after the Turi acquisition. “It’s becoming embedded in the process of deciding the products we’re going to do next.”

Turi is seen as a natural fit for Apple’s machine learning push since its application toolkits based on the Python programming language are designed to simplify development of machine learning models that can be embedded into applications and quickly scaled.

Last October, Apple acquired two other AI-related startups. Machine-learning specialist Perceptio focuses on image recognition and classification based on deep learning techniques. U.K.-based VocalIQ is a natural language developer whose technology was relevant to Apple’s plans to upgrade Siri. Most of VocalIO’s development work has focused on the automotive sector.

Apple is among a growing list of U.S. consumer electronics and social media giants investing heavily in machine learning-powered artificial intelligence development. Among the hurdles are advancing current platforms such as Siri from making what amount to educated guesses on recommendations and responses based on limited data. Another is handling large AI workloads so that users can have conversations with digital assistants.

While Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) has been focusing on GPU-powered hardware to crunch big AI workloads, rivals such as Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) are leveraging deep learning tools acquired by the search giant via its 2014 deal for DeepMind.

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