AI takes a backseat as Apple puts customers at the ‘center of everything’

No apologies. Just a reminder that customers are “at the center of everything.”

That’s how Apple chief executive Tim Cook kicked off the company’s Worldwide Developer Conference, a stark contrast to the subdued eventFacebook recently convened following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Privacy concerns were also on display here: There were at least two moments when Apple took potshots at beleaguered Facebook.

But beyond the introduction of memojisa Measure app, an updated Stock appgroup FaceTime support, a rebranded Apple Books app, and multiple AR toolkit enhancements, it really was business as usual for the tech giant. And part of business as usual involves shoring up Siri and improving its machine learning offerings for developers through Core ML 2.

Growing up Siri

Nearly six years ago, Siri was introduced to the world as the first assistant on a smartphone. Since then, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all entered the space, carving out different niches such as Amazon’s Alexa for the home and IoT; Microsoft’s Cortana for workplace productivity; and Google for everything else. Apple is taking its time to get Siri just right, as befits its modus operandi.

With the coming release of iOS 12, Apple is boasting that Siri will be able to do more for you, including customized support for third-party apps. We’ve all been trained to say “Hey Siri” and then a specific command in order to get assistance. Any deviation from this formula or how we’d normally speak could result in results we don’t want. This also applies to opening up third-party apps. But with iOS 12, Apple is enabling Shortcuts which are phrases that can expose actions taken by Siri.

Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, offered the example of finding your keys — if you have the Tile app installed on your phone and have a Shortcut enabled (“Where are my keys?”), Siri will automatically open up Tile and show you where your keys are. Other instances he brought up included finding the schedule of your favorite sports team and ordering groceries. While promising, it’s still behind Google’s Assistant and is also still very limited in terms of what third-party apps actually can have a Shortcut.

Shortcuts, however, may have useful implications for Apple’s HomePod speaker, which is slowly increasing the number of third-party apps it supports. Apple may have been first out of the gate with a virtual assistant, but it lagged behind Google and Amazon. It’s trying to make up for lost time with the latest updates to iOS 12.

The core of ML

In a bid to win over developers from Google, Apple also debuted two new machine learning tools with promises of faster training of vision and natural language data for iOS and Macs. Mobile developers are getting an upgraded Core ML which Apple claims reduces the size of machine learning models by 75 percent thanks to quantization. The release with iOS 12 is no coincidence because the company may hope developers use Core ML to make their apps smarter, which could ultimately feed back into Siri, making it the dominant assistant in the marketplace.

Those building for Macs aren’t left out either because Apple has introduced a similar toolkit called Create ML. With it, developers should be able to train their own machine learning models using their own data without needing to hire a data scientist, reducing the resources needed on projects.

The introduction of Create ML lets developers train their models on both iOS and Mac devices, two highly-used devices with a plethora of data untapped and can be used to improve apps. In doing so, Apple is enticing developerswith an environment receptive to machine learning, offering training capabilities across devices and potential future hardware.

Let’s not forget about privacy

In the wake of Cambridge Analytica, you can’t have a tech conference without talking about privacy. At one point during his keynote, in an apparent reference to the recently revealed changes that Facebook shared users’ data with mobile phone makers, Federighi stated: “We believe your private data should remain private … because there can be a lot of sensitive data on your devices and we think you should be in control of who sees it.”

There were some direct shots at Facebook, too, such as when Apple announced an enhanced Do Not Disturb mode and the demo featured Instagram; and during the introduction of MacOS Mojave, which prevents your browsing history from being shared in Safari, a strike at Facebook’s ability to track Likes and Shares on third-party apps and sites.

Prior to Federighi’s keynote, former Apple chief evangelist Guy Kawasaki told me what he expected to hear about privacy: “I hope Apple takes the high road and sets the gold standard. And if it does create the gold standard, everyone has to live up to that.” He elaborated by saying, “I think it’s got to be a statement of what Apple will, and will not, record, see, and sell. There has to be something people point to.”

Now a director with the privacy-focused app Privy, Kawasaki doesn’t think the data privacy issue is scaring off developers. They’re already dealing with GDPR, after all. “It’s not as if they’re swearing off technology and pulling up in horses and harvesting hay,” he said. “At some point, you make bets on platforms, and some times you win and some times you lose.”

By the end of the day, Apple had lived up to Cook’s pronouncement about customers and privacy being at the center of everything — not so much AI, however. Improvements to Siri and Core ML 2 will have to be enough for now.