Apple Aims to up its AIl Smarts with iCloud User Data on iOS 10.3..:;

The next version of Apple’s mobile platform will include an opt-in
for iOS users to share their iCloud data in order to help the
company improve software products, such as its voice-powered virtual
assistant, Siri. The iOS 10.3 beta was released earlier this week.

A note about the forthcoming change, under the heading “iCloud
Analytics & Privacy”, says any user data shared with Apple via this
opt in will undergo “privacy preserving techniques” — continuing its
privacy-first approach to stepping up its AI efforts.      
The company has generally lagged behind data-mining rivals such as
Google in developing machine learning powered technologies and embedding
them into its software and services to offer a more personalized and/or
predictive experience, in no small part because it has prioritized (and
championed) user privacy — meaning, unlike its major rivals, Apple does not routinely suck up users’ personal data in the clear.

And while that’s great from a privacy stand point — and allows Apple
to differentiate its hardware business from rivals such as Google that
do rely on factory-farming user data to power their ad-targeting
business models — the company has been facing increasing competitive
pressure from rivals when it comes to developing software that makes use
of machine learning and AI to offer a more personalized experience to

With hardware sales growth slowing
there’s also increasing pressure on Cupertino to innovate in services,
which means it needs to be offering smarter, predictive and personalized
products powered by machine learning. The problem is for AI to function
it needs to be fed on data.

Apple’s workaround for what some have argued is a convenience vs
privacy impasse is to apply a level of obfuscation to the raw user data,
in order to protect individuals’ privacy, only taking this fuzzier data
off to its cloud for analyzing (in bulk) to enable it to draw some
broad-brush conclusions about usage trends.

Apple discussed one obfuscation technique it’s using — called differential privacy — back in June
at WWDC, and says now this is one of the ways it will be processing any
iCloud user-data that it gains access to after iOS 10.3.

At WWDC, Apple senior VP of software engineering Craig Federighi
described the result of the algorithmic scrambling technique as akin to
“crowdsourced learning”. Although it’s not clear how successful it’s
been thus far — in terms of making a noticeable difference to the
convenience and ‘delight’ of Apple services for its users.

We’ve reached out to the company with questions about the
forthcoming expansion of its AI efforts and will update this post with
any additional detail.

The first Apple services to gain AI-powered enhancements via the application of differential privacy techniques were: iMessage,
with keyboard data used to power features such as next word and emoji
predictions, and also flag up linguistic changes such as rising slang
terms or trendy new words; Spotlight Search, with analytics on bulk user data enabling Apple to flag popular deep link searches to better rank search results; and Notes,
where the technique has enabled more interactivity, such as underlining
actionable info such as dates — to power things like calendar event
creation suggestions. These were also the first three services
it targeted to be a source of user data to apply its AI algorithms to.

In iOS 10.3 Apple is aiming to expand its access to user data via
its cloud storage and back-up service, iCloud, though not (at least
explicitly) to improve iCloud itself — rather it says it will be using
insights gleaned there to help it improve its Siri voice assistant
(among other unnamed services). It notes that users can opt out of
sharing their iCloud data at any time — a welcome and sensible check,
not least because some iCloud users do pay for extra storage.

With Siri, Apple is likely hoping that bulk iCloud data analysis can
help it improve voice recognition capabilities — and perhaps also
enhance the results served up by the voice assistant, by improving
Siri’s ability to make selections/suggestions based on popular user

While Apple was an early mover in the voice assistant space when it
originally launched Siri, it’s now very fiercely contested territory,
with all major tech giants having an offering — and analysts spying
increasing user appetite for voice-driven offerings. Having access to
good data is clearly key to improving AI assistant smarts.

iCloud users can sync all sorts of data to Apple’s cloud storage
service — from their calendar, email, notes, reminders, photos and
contacts, to Safari bookmarks and even choose to back up messaging
content from apps such as WhatsApp — so there’s a very wide range of
data and data types Apple could draw on here to try to make Siri (and
other services) smarter.

While other tech companies have been experimenting with, and even
applying, differential privacy techniques — including Google, via its RAPPOR project — Apple’s push on this front appears to be considerably broader.

“It is probably fair to say that Apple is the first to integrate
differentially private algorithms so comprehensively into their products
and to use it as a differentiator,” is how Adam Smith, a long time
researcher in the field and associate professor in the Computer Science
and Engineering Department at Pennsylvania State University,
described the companies efforts back in June.

“I would imagine they will want to use the [iCloud] data for all
sorts of things, from improving Siri suggestions to devising which new
products to deploy and even much more technical things like what type of
data compression to use,” Smith says now. “Basically, the more
information they have about how people use their service, the better
they can adapt it to accomplish particular goals (serve their customers,
extract revenue, etc).”

Today it was also confirmed Apple
has formally joined a raft of other tech firms in signing up to an AI
research partnership that aims to help further socially beneficial
artificial intelligence, likely by conducting research into areas such
as AI ethics — a topic which is attracting increasing attention as autonomous technologies proliferate.    

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