Apple steals Google’s AI wiz to make Siri smarter

By

John Giannandrea
Starting today, John Giannandrea heads the team improving the Siri voice assistant.
Photo: Google

John Giannandrea used to run Google’s artificial intelligence division, but now he works for Apple. He’s leading the drive to make the company’s Siri voice assistant smarter, a goal many would agree is overdue.

This is the most high-profile move yet in Apple’s ongoing drive to hire more talent for the Siri team.

Giannandrea came to Google in 2010. He helped make AI and machine learning part of all the company’s products, from search to Gmail. And now he’s doing that for Apple.

“John shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal,” Apple CEO Time Cook wrote in an email to employees obtained by The New York Times.

Siri and Apple’s differential privacy

Apple’s voice assistant debuted in the iPhone 4S, and today is integrated into almost all the company’s computers. It’s one of the major ways of controlling the new HomePod smart speaker, even though it’s not really up to the job. Siri is widely criticized for falling behind rivals, including Google Assistant, which Giannandrea helped develop.

Part of the reason for Siri’s shortcomings is Apple’s privacy stance. The company places a premium on privacy. It employs something called differential privacy (.pdf), steadfastly refusing to gather data about individuals the way Google, Facebook and other tech giants do.

Apple says its methods let it “gain insight into what many Apple users are doing, while helping to preserve the privacy of individual users. It is a technique that enables Apple to learn about the user community without learning about individuals in the community. Differential privacy transforms the information shared with Apple before it ever leaves the user’s device such that Apple can never reproduce the true data.”

Quest to make Siri smarter

According to information that recently leaked from Apple, there’s been an internal debate for years on whether to make Siri able to handle much more complex tasks, or to leave the voice assistant as the simple tool it has been up until now.

The winner of that debate seems to be clear. In addition to bringing on one of the top names in AI, Apple recently posted more than a hundred job openings for the Siri team.

If all this bears fruit, then Apple will have a voice assistant that the company can be proud of. And, more importantly, one that can stand up to tough competition from Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa.