Apple to drop absolute secrecy of AI research after falling behind rivals

Apple to drop absolute secrecy of AI research after falling behind rivals
Apple will apparently no longer demand that its machine learning researchers isolate themselves from the scientific community to protect intellectual property. The iPhone maker’s secrecy policy has been blamed for its AI, Siri, lagging behind competitors.

During a presentation at the Neural Information Processing Systems (NIPS) conference, currently taking place in Barcelona, Spain, Apple’s director of AI research, Russ Salakhutdinov, presented a slide saying, "Can we publish? Yes. Do we engage with academia? Yes."

Although the California-based giant has not officially backed up the move with a statement, if confirmed, it will be in stark contrast to Apple’s previous behavior. The world’s most valuable company has not published any AI research, and during previous conferences Apple attendees would not even disclose their areas of research, never mind present them in front of other scientists.

The hiring of Salakhutdinov, its first-ever head of AI, in October, marked a turning point. One of the leading deep learning researchers over the past decade, he remains an associate professor at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, and has continued to publish papers.

Past reports from Apple’s research facilities indicated that scientists were not only forced to sign burdensome non-disclosure agreements, but operated like a part of an underground revolutionary movement or intelligence agency, with isolated “cells” of scientists not informed even what teams next door were working on.

Not only has this legacy of Steve Jobs’ modus operandi fostered distrust and lack of collaboration inside Apple, but this had made it difficult to recruit top-tier talent from outside.

“When you’re a researcher, you assume that you’re going to publish your work. It’s very important for a scientist because the currency of the career as a scientist is the intellectual impact,” Yann LeCun, AI director at Silicon Valley rival Facebook, told Business Insider in November. “So you can’t tell people 'come work for us but you can’t tell people what you’re doing' because you basically ruin their career."

Siri, the digital assistant present in Apple iPhones since 2011, was once a leader in its field, but has been taken over by Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana, which understand context better, and are more integrated with other devices and apps. Apple has also not launched a new voice assistant household device to compete with Amazon’s Echo and Google Home, though for a company specializing in consumer appliances and creating its own ecosystem, this would be a natural fit.

“They’re completely out of the loop,” Richard Zemel, a professor in the computer science department at the University of Toronto, said to Bloomberg last year, commenting on Apple’s place in the AI research sphere.

CEO Tim Cook said this year that AI is a “core technology” for the company. Apple, which is sitting on a huge cash pile, has already been buying up smaller AI startups, and in the summer announced that third-party developers would be allowed to access its Siri platform. But the decision to join the academic community marks a more fundamental change of attitude in a bid to return to the front of the pack.