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Apple buys a lot of companies throughout the course of a year, with only a couple of them rising to the level of intriguing news. Last year’s purchase of Intel’s smartphone modem business certainly qualifies, as does the 2018 acquisition of Shazam, but for the most part, Apple scopes out companies that we’ve never heard of for reasons we’ll never know.
Its most recent acquisition might be different. The company, Xnor.ai, might not be one you’ve ever heard of, but they’re hardly unknown. Since last summer, the Seattle-based startup’s tech has been the brains behind the popular Wyze cam’s marquee feature: people detection. Simply put, it allowed the $20 camera to distinguish between faces, pets, and dust, and vastly improved its abilities, putting it a somewhat level playing field with the far-more-expensive Ring and Nest cams of the world.
But it’s not just that Xnor.ai’s engine worked on a budget cam, it’s how it worked. Not only did it vastly improve the capability of the pint-sized recorder, but it also did it with privacy in mind. Using something called Edge AI, Xnor.ai was able to process its algorithm engine on the camera itself, meaning it didn’t need to transmit images to a far-away cloud.
That cuts to Apple’s main privacy argument. We’ve long suspected that the reason why Siri lags Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa is that Apple doesn’t collect the same kind of information that those companies do and is thus at a disadvantage. Google and Amazon may offer the ability to toggle privacy settings, but the core business model relies on data collection. It’s easier to improve AI processing when you have a mountain of data to work with, especially when you’re dealing with millions of users. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.
That’s where Xnor.ai comes in, and likely why Apple deemed it worthy of several million dollars. I don’t think Siri’s development (or lack thereof) is the result of malaise or a lack of focus from Apple, but rather the capabilities of the AI engine. Apple wants to process as much as it can on the device, but the reality is that it’s just not possible on Siri’s scale, at least not without a little help.
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