Apple and "The Mother of All AI"
During the developers' conference at WWDC on June 5th , Apple talked about the many improvements being made to their iOS and MacOS systems. However, in a separate interview with Bloomberg Television, Tim Cook revealed that Apple is developing an AI system. Evidently, it would be the “Mother of All AI” which would be incorporated into self-driving cars.
In the interview, Tim Cook talked about a situation where multiple events are simultaneously taking place which would be monitored by “autonomous systems”. Two of these events were revealed to be ride sharing and self-driving cars. There's not much else that he revealed, but that's enough as excitement grows for an "iCar". In a report released last month, Research and Markets already predicted that Apple will be instrumental in the autonomous vehicle industry through 2023.
But Apple's joining this industry pretty late in the game. Is it better late than never or are they in for an uphill battle?
The AI technology used by Siri may help with Apple's self-driving car ambitions.
Entering a Market Full of Hype
What's got everyone in a tizzy about self-driving cars, anyway? What kind of situation is Apple walking into?
For consumers, there's the promise of safer roads since car crashes cause millions of deaths each year. These deaths are mostly as a result of human error as opposed to malfunction or environmental factors. According to the NHTSA, approximately 94% of crashes between 2005 and 2007 could be traced back to a human as the "critical reason" leading up to a crash. So it isn't difficult to see why so many people think that self-driving cars—which may eventually take the human factor out completely—is a worthwhile venture.
The automotive industry has collectively started pouring millions of dollars of research into developing self-driving cars. From a certain perspective, this is to be expected as car companies reach for the next step in their evolution. Anyone left behind risks missing "the next big thing" that will draw consumers to buy their vehicles.
One of Waymo's self-driving prototypes. Image courtesy of Waymo.
Quite naturally, tech companies have also put a massive focus on self-driving cars to enable car companies to move forward. Manufacturers have been designing components specifically for autonomous driving applications. AI and sensor designers have been working for years on object-detection systems to help with navigation.
So consumers are already comfortable with the concept of a future with self-driving cars. Automakers are looking for tech partners to help them develop new products. Many of the basic questions associated with making self-driving cars a reality are already being addressed. Maybe Apple had the right idea in entering the market this late.
Left Behind the Self-Driving Car Craze
The real downside is that competition is already stiff. Big name corporations, some with only tangential ties to car manufacturing, have also been diving into this venture. For example, it came as something of a surprise to the general public when Google, a household name in the search engine and algorithm development, began work on a self-driving car. Since then, the project has split off into a child company called Waymo under the Alphabet umbrella.
Another surprise player was Uber, the ride-sharing company that's been giving the taxi industry grief for almost a decade. Uber's proved to be quite the competitor, though they're currently locked in a legal battle with Waymo over LiDAR sensor technology systems.
Tesla is the other big competitor, launching their Autopilot system for assisted driving in 2014. Tesla and Waymo have differing philosophies on sensor technologies for autonomous cars, though, showing that there's room for Apple to do things its own way (as it's wont to do).
A demonstration of the Autopilot system in action. Screengrab courtesy of Tesla.
Despite that Apple and Alphabet compete on so many fronts (such as in the smartphone OS arena), Tesla may be Apple's biggest competitor in that they share Apple's ambition—and their dedication to style.
Apple isn't short on talent or capital, however. How many of its sizable resources will be necessary to catch up to the rest of the pack is hard to say. Given their penchant for secrecy, the first time we hear about how far along their program is might be when they release the product for sale.
Is Siri Losing Steam?
Most of the tech giants have been heavily researching machine learning systems and how they can be applied to everyday life. For example, IBM's supercomputer Q&A system, Watson, is touted as being useful for applications in myriad industries, including healthcare. Amazon AI is also introducing AI concepts into online shopping as item suggestions are made based on user behavior.
The most popular form of AI today, however, is "personal assistant" technology, especially those capable of interpreting speech and delivering information based on commands.
However, despite that Apple was one of the first companies to use artificial intelligence in a consumer product, Siri, it has since struggled to continue its development in that area.
The Siri "listening" interface. Image courtesy of Apple.
Part of the problem is that Apple's been trying, at least publically, to be a bastion of personal privacy for its consumers. (Remember that time Apple refused to grant the FBI access to a device for an investigation?) AI systems usually work by collecting large amounts of data and then processing it to perform some action (for example, suggest a coffee shop if a specific area is visited frequently), but this is something that might be problematic for Apple's privacy ethos.
But Apple has not given up on AI yet, which led Tim Cook to reveal that the company is working on a new AI system that may be focused around the automotive industry.
There's a closing window for them to make some changes, though. According to a report from Verto Analytics, Siri's losing ground to Alexa and Cortana in the personal assistant market. This is arguably a symptom of Apple's continuing issues with AI development. While they've managed fine so far, this will become an increasingly crucial market for them. Alexa, in particular, is demonstrating early domination in smart home assistants and even incorporation in cars. The opportunities for AI incorporation will continue to grow whether Apple catches up or not.
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Fully autonomous cars, on the other hand, are unlikely to hit the market for many years. But Apple, the largest tech company in the world, joining the industry is a strong indicator that this trend is not slowing down. Even if Siri's losing ground to Amazon, this may be a new chapter for Apple.