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How Apple's efforts to dominate the AI arms race fell apart

Kwan Wei Kevin Tan   

How Apple's efforts to dominate the AI arms race fell apart
  • Winning the AI race has long been a goal of Apple's.
  • The company brought in Google's AI chief John Giannandrea to lead their AI efforts back in 2018.

Apple might seem like a laggard in the AI race right now, but it wasn't for lack of trying.

The Cupertino-based tech giant aimed to dominate the field when it recruited Google's AI chief, John Giannandrea, back in 2018.

Giannandrea's team, however, brought little to the table as it was beset by cultural clashes and insufficient computing resources, The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday, citing people familiar with the matter.

According to the outlet, Giannandrea was brought in to lead the iPhone maker's AI strategy and improve the company's digital assistant, Siri.

The Scottish software engineer spent eight years at the search giant, where he led Google's machine intelligence, research, and search teams, before joining Apple.

But Giannandrea's team, which was largely made up of ex-Googlers and staff from Apple's startup acquisitions, had a tough time fitting in with the rest of the company.

Cultural clashes fuelled internal tensions

Even though Apple placed a huge emphasis on setting and meeting tight deadlines, Giannandrea's staff tended to emulate Google's approach of having loosely defined deadlines. And that culture clash made it difficult for other Apple engineers to work with Giannandrea's team, per The Journal.

In fact, some teams ended up ignoring Giannandrea entirely and went ahead with their own AI projects.

Former Apple employees told The Journal that the company's software chief, Craig Federighi, directed his staff to develop their own AI capabilities in image and video recognition.

Insufficient AI chips limited Apple's efforts

It also didn't help that Apple didn't manage to buy enough AI processors.

The chips, which are highly coveted by tech companies trying to establish themselves in the field, are critical for training AI models.

The shortage of computing resources ended up limiting Apple's AI efforts, with Giannandrea's team turning to external cloud services like Google to train their models, per The Journal.

Representatives for Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment from BI sent outside regular business hours.

Apple's travails with AI underscore the immense challenges faced by tech giants trying to become dominant players in the field.

For one, great AI talent is scarce and hard to come by. This has turned recruitment into a zero-sum game, with tech giants brazenly poaching staff from one another with eye-watering pay packages.

Back in March, The Information reported that Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg was trying to recruit AI researchers from Google's DeepMind with personally written emails.

Even if money isn't an issue, tech companies still have to contend with the ongoing supply shortages for AI processors made by chip giants like Nvidia.

The mad dash for chips has been a huge boon for Nvidia's stock price, which has gained by more than 3,300% in the past five years.

On Wednesday, Nvidia's market capitalization soared above $3 trillion, pushing it past Apple to become the second most valuable company in the world.

For now, it seems that Apple will be trying to win the AI race with a different strategy — by partnering with Sam Altman's OpenAI.

Apple is set to announce its partnership with the ChatGPT maker during its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June, per Bloomberg. The company is also expected to unveil its AI offerings, which could include an overhaul of Siri.




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