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Apple Unifies Its Siri and AI Strategy Under New Leadership

By Ashraf Eassa – Jul 19, 2018 at 9:20AM

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A much-needed shake-up could help the company make Siri a leader in machine learning.

As you may have noticed, machine learning and artificial intelligence are two of the hottest areas in technology today. One company that seems to have been caught flat-footed in the artificial intelligence race is Apple (AAPL -1.76%).

Its Siri virtual assistant, for example, considerably lags competing offerings from Alphabet and Amazon. While that deficiency hasn't stopped Apple's core smartphone business from performing well, we've begun to see it hinder Apple's ability to enter new markets.

Apple's HomePod smart speaker on a piece of furniture.

Image source: Apple.

The HomePod -- a rare flop for Cupertino

Take, for example, Apple's HomePod, its foray into the increasingly popular smart-speaker product category. Reviews praised the device for having excellent sound quality, but the Siri virtual assistant was far behind competing smart speakers from Amazon and Google. That made the device a harder sell than it would've been otherwise, particularly at the premium price point that Apple charges for the HomePod ($350 while the competing Echo Plus, for example, costs $150).

While Apple successfully charges premium prices in other categories, its products tend to be "best-in-class" in those markets, while that's simply not the case for HomePod.

For Apple to successfully participate in new markets, and to keep its core iPhone and iPad products competitive well into the future, it needs to go from zero to hero in artificial intelligence. The company's recent hire of John Giannandrea, who previously led Google's artificial intelligence efforts, and the fact that the company just gave him more power, seem to suggest that Apple is really trying to rework its entire strategy in this space.

Let's take a closer look at just what Giannandrea might bring to Apple's future.

A power player

Giannandrea's biography on Apple's website says that his title is the "Chief of Machine Learning and AI Strategy." In this role, the page explains that he "oversees the strategy for Artificial Intelligence and machine learning across the company and development of Core ML and Siri technologies."

If you've been following Apple closely, you might remember that in late 2017, Apple updated the biography of its senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, to indicate that he'd been put in charge of Siri, which was previously overseen by Apple executive Eddy Cue.

The fact that Apple saw fit to put its Siri and machine learning efforts -- which very much fall in the domain of "software engineering" -- under an artificial intelligence specialist plucked from Google, one of the leading artificial intelligence companies in the world, seems like a major, positive change for Apple's artificial intelligence and Siri-based efforts.

It won't get better overnight

Let's be realistic, a management change effected today isn't going to impact the products and technologies that we see come out of Apple for some time. Developing good software is a long process, especially considering the possibility that Apple will effectively throw out the current iteration of Siri and start from scratch.

However, one reason that I'm hopeful is that Apple seems to understand that it has a problem here, is moving to bring in new leadership to oversee its efforts, and even seems to be giving the new talent quite a bit of autonomy (Giannandrea reports to CEO Tim Cook, not to Federighi).

If Apple is successful at reshaping its artificial intelligence efforts and continues to fund them appropriately, then there's a reasonable chance that within a few years, it won't be a laggard in this space but a leader. That could mean better software, better services, and ultimately, a more appealing ecosystem of Apple offerings.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Suzanne Frey, an executive at Alphabet, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Ashraf Eassa has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Alphabet (A shares), Alphabet (C shares), Amazon, and Apple. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on Apple and short January 2020 $155 calls on Apple. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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