Apple Inc. is now one of the top firms in the study of Artificial Intelligence in the world. You wouldn’t know that from scientific journals, nor from the firm’s press releases. Apple, unlike other major AI investors Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc keeps its work secret. New info suggests that’s one of the reasons the firm is where it is today, but it’s also something the firm is paying heavily for.
Scientists like to publish their work, and they like to get recognition for the knowledge they add to that of the world as a whole. Apple, with its preference for keeping its AI research secret, doesn’t allow its researchers to publish in scientific journals.
Similar rules seem to be enforced at the likes of Facebook and Google, but work from those firms does, on a regular enough basis, make it out into the public eye. Apple has never published a single paper on Artificial Intelligence.
Apple makes trade secrets
There’s very big differences between trade secrets and patents. Trade secrets are not protected by law. If another firm comes across the same invention and puts it to work they can’t be sued. The advantage is, however, massive. Trade secrets don’t have to be published, and they never become public info through legal process.
When Facebook publishes a piece of research from its AI program, or Google shows off tools like its Deep Dream image recognition, it becomes public info and other firms, like Apple, can build off of it in order to learn more.
It doesn’t make sense for Apple to keep things like the design of the iPhone 6S, or the design of iOS as a trade secret. When it releases to the public the firm would lose all of its control over the IP. For work deftly hidden by the firms’ vast cloud network, however, keeping things as trade secrets rather than patents makes it more likely that they’ll stay secret.
That’s not, on the other hand, the ideal situation for those who love research. If they go to work on AI at Apple , they’re not allowed to publish, and that eats into the appeal of a job at Infinite Loop. It turns out it costs quite a lot of money to convince them to keep those secrets.
Apple pays more for research
In an insightful piece on the scientific labor market for the Harvard Business Review Walter Frick says that scientists cost more to employ in jobs where they can’t publish. In a recent paper, cited by Frick, researchers found that about 80 percent of PhDs would require extra pay in order to take a job that didn’t allow them to publish.
That leaves just one in five researchers who don’t seem to put any economic worth on publishing their ideas. Another piece of research, this one published by an MIT researcher back in 1999, found that salaries in jobs that allowed publishing were around 25 percent lower on average.
That means, on the other hand, that in order to convince them not publish the firm hiring them has to pay a 33 percent premium. That’s the situation that Apple is in right now, and it’s getting expensive.
Apple blows cash on research
In its most recent quarterly report Apple revealed that it spent a total of $8.1B in the twelve months it recorded as its fiscal 2015. That’s a huge amount of money by any standards, except, of course, Apple’s own. The firm brought in total revenue of more than $200B in the same period.
The $8B spend was bigger than anything Apple has ever spent before, however, a massive 34 percent increase over spending in the 2014 fiscal year. A lot of the speculation about the rise in research spending assumes that the extra cash is going to the rumored Apple Car.
It’s not certain that Apple is working on a car, though it seems more and more likely, but it is clear that the firm is pouring money into AI research. That might not be enough to keep Apple ahead according to some.
AI is at the heart of Apple Inc.
If it’s not clear to some shareholders what Apple is spending all that money on, it should become a little bit more obvious when taking a close look at an iPhone or Apple Watch. What Apple has achieved in a fully realized consumer product is something that just hasn’t been possible inside the lab. Siri is something like a miracle in terms of voice recognition and data analysis.
The digital assistant was put at the heart of the iPhone search experience on the release of iOS 9, and at the heart of the Apple Watch. With the release of the Apple TV, Siri is about to become a key part of the way people watch TV, and soon the way that they control their smart home.
The firm is also supposed to be working on a self-driving car. Tesla Motors has shown that that effort doesn’t necessarily require the world leaders in AI, but it is going to require some sort of talent.
Siri is awesome, and Apple is putting the tech behind her iconic voice at the heart of almost every single thing it makes. The AI is a key differentiation across the devices that Apple sells, and it keeps getting better and better, in part because of the amount of cash the firm has plowed into AI research.
Apple keeps Siri on the outside
Despite how central AI is to Apple, the firm won’t make an official appearance at the Carnival of AI research, the Neural Information Processing Systems conference, this year. Bloomberg, in a report on Apple’s research, questioned whether or not the world was missing out as a result of Apple’s secrecy.
Yoshua Bengio, professor of computer science at the University of Montreal, reckons that Apple may be hurting itself by keeping its work so secret. He told the news outlet, “The really strong people don’t want to go into a closed environment where it’s all secret. The differentiating factors are, ‘Who are you going to be working with?’ ‘Am I going to stay a part of the scientific community?’ ‘How much freedom will I have?’”
All of those issues could, of course, be overcome with money, and given Apple’s R&D budget it seems to be trying. In AI research, however, there is a very small pool of people working at the top level. When Facebook, Google, and a slew of other firms are aiming for the same talent, and all offering high pay, the ability to publish may be a differentiating factor.
It’s always exceptionally difficult to get a picture of what’s going on inside Apple . To get a sense of the the supposed intrigue, look no further than Jony Ive’s promotion earlier this year. The firm keeps secrets well, and it likely pays well to shield info from the outside world. Perhaps Apple will be able to stay on the cutting edge of the AI race while cutting itself off from the rest of the world.
Bengio is not convinced. “There’s no way they can just observe and not be part of the community and take advantage of what is going on,” he told Bloomberg “I believe if they don’t change their attitude, they will stay behind.”