Apple made a big move in the battle for top AI talent this week, hiring John Giannandrea away from Google, where he had until Monday been chief of search and artificial intelligence. Apple announced on Tuesday that Giannandrea would lead its machine learning and AI strategy, reporting directly to CEO Tim Cook, the New York Times reported:
Apple has made other high-profile hires in the field, including the Carnegie Mellon professor Russ Salakhutdinov. Mr. Salakhutdinov studied at the University of Toronto under Geoffrey Hinton, who helps oversee the Google Brain lab.
Apple has taken a strong stance on protecting the privacy of people who use its devices and online services, which could put it at a disadvantage when building services using neural networks. Researchers train these systems by pooling enormous amounts of digital data, sometimes from customer services. Apple, however, has said it is developing methods that would allow it to train these algorithms without compromising privacy.
Cook stressed Apple’s commitment to charting a privacy-conscious course on AI development in his statement on Tuesday, saying Giannandrea “shares our commitment to privacy and our thoughtful approach as we make computers even smarter and more personal.” While safeguarding users’ privacy may pose a significant technical challenge in AI and machine learning, that commitment could have an upside from a marketing perspective at a time when tech companies are facing heightened scrutiny and criticism of their data privacy practices.
AI experts like Giannandrea command huge salaries and wield enormous influence in part because their skills and knowledge are so highly specialized and extremely scarce: Even the most liberal estimates put the number of AI researchers and practitioners worldwide at between 200,000 and 300,000 people, while other estimates are an order of magnitude lower. Because this talent is in short supply and great demand, big tech companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft are the only ones who can afford them, and these companies have been aggressively acquiring AI startups and poaching talent away from their competitors, smaller companies, and universities. AI specialists with freshly-minted PhDs can earn $300,000-$500,000 in cash and equity right out of graduate school, while big names in the field are earning total pay packages in the millions or tens of millions of dollars.
Because the field of AI talent is so small and the potential impact of each individual expert is so great, a single change like Giannandrea’s move from Google to Apple can be game-changing. Apple’s AI-powered voice assistant Siri is generally considered less advanced than Google Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa, putting the iPhone maker on the back foot in one of the most competitive fields of cutting-edge technology. One reason why the competition is heating up at this moment is that these AI assistants are expanding their reach from personal to enterprise applications. Gartner’s latest survey of Chief Information Officers found that while only four percent of organizations have already implemented AI in their organizations, another 46 percent have plans to do so—a number that is only likely to grow in the coming years.