Apple aims to up its AI smarts with iCloud user data in 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 users.

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”.

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