How Apple plans to make its phones smarter

Apple iPhone 6 Plus in action.
SMH

Apple iPhone 6 Plus in action.

Apple has ramped up its hiring of artificial intelligence experts in a bid to create smartphone features that give users what they want before they ask.

As part of its push, the company is currently trying to hire at least 86 more employees with expertise in the branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning, according to a recent analysis of Apple job postings.

The company has also stepped up its courtship of machine-learning PhD's, joining Google, Amazon, Facebook and others in a fierce contest, leading academics say.

But some experts say the iPhone maker's strict stance on privacy is likely to undermine its ability to compete in the rapidly progressing field.

Machine learning, which helps devices infer from experience what users are likely to want next, relies on crunching vast troves of data to provide unprompted services, such as the scores for a favourite sports team or reminders of when to leave for an appointment based on traffic.

The larger the universe of users providing data about their habits, the better predictions can be about what an individual might want. But Apple analyses its users' behaviour under self-imposed constraints to better protect their data from outsiders.

That means Apple largely relies on analysing the data on each user's iPhone rather than sending it to the cloud, where it can be studied alongside information from millions of others.

"They want to make a phone that responds to you very quickly without knowledge of the rest of the world," said Joseph Gonzalez, co-founder of Dato, a machine learning startup. "It's harder to do that."

The tech titan's strategy will come into clearer focus on Thursday, when it is expected to reveal its new iPhones and latest mobile operating system, iOS 9.

Apple has promised the release will include a variety of intelligent reminders, which analysts expect will rival the offerings from Google's Android.

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While Apple helped pioneer mobile intelligence - it's Siri introduced the concept of a digital assistant to consumers in 2011 - the company has since lost ground to Google and Microsoft, whose digital assistants have become more adept at learning about users and helping them with their daily routines.

As users increasingly demand phones that understand them and tailor services accordingly, Apple cannot afford to let the gap persist, experts say.

"What seemed like science fiction only four years ago has become an expectation," said venture capitalist Gary Morgenthaler, who was one of the original investors in Siri before it was acquired by Apple in 2010.

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 - Reuters

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