Apple Snags New AI Leader from Google
It all makes sense now. The Information reported (N.B. paywall) Monday that, John Giannandrea, the senior vice president that oversaw Google’s search and AI units, was stepping aside. That move elevated the head of search engineering, Ben Gomes, to overseeing the entire search business and Jeff Dean of the Google Brain team to assume responsibility for the company’s AI portfolio. The reorganization was apparently instigated by John Giannandrea’s decision to take on a new created AI executive role at Apple.
According to The New York Times, Giannandrea will be one of only 16 executives that reports directly to Apple CEO Tim Cook and will be responsible for the company’s “machine learning and A.I. strategy.” The Times characterized Giannandrea’s hiring as a victory for Apple in its AI efforts that are viewed by “Silicon Valley executives and analysts as lagging its peers.”
Apple has hired Google’s chief of search and artificial intelligence, John Giannandrea, a major coup in its bid to catch up to the artificial intelligence technology of its rivals.
This move comes after a lot of public discussion focused around Siri’s failings, how the voice service undermines the HomePod smart speaker, and the history of challenges faced by a succession of departed executives. While previous negative commentary around Siri focused on the technology or Apple’s inflexible approach to working with partners, more recent criticism has centered on leadership. Giannandrea is the type of seasoned executive that may be able to address those management issues.
A New Apple Emphasis on AI?
In a 2016 interview with WIRED, Apple executives were proud of the fact that AI and machine learning expertise was distributed throughout the company and not overseen by a centralized group. Craig Federighi, senior vice president of software engineering, commented, “We don’t have a single centralized organization that’s the Temple of ML in Apple. We try to keep it close to teams that need to apply it to deliver the right user experience.” Apple treats AI as a tactical tool to augment user features. Google and Amazon are orienting their entire businesses around AI as a strategic asset that delivers new products, features and capabilities.
The obvious question is whether the AI decentralization and tactical perspective will change with the addition of Giannandrea. Note the term “strategy” in his role description as opposed to operational titles such as general manager or executive vice president. It’s not clear whether he will be inheriting a centralized portfolio or if he will simply be a wise man offering counsel to the business line executives that command Apple’s AI personnel and assets.
The timing may be important regardless of the organizational structure. Siri needs to set a new path to catch up with Google Assistant, Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa which are addressing a far wider array of capabilities and increasing their feature lead. Beyond Siri, Apple has a number of other services from maps to messaging that are quickly falling behind competing products. Giannandrea comes from a model that is proving successful. It will be interesting to see if he can implement a new model that can succeed at Apple. There is little doubt that it is long past time for Apple to think different about its approach to AI in general and Siri in particular.