Business Impact

How to Read Between the Lines of Tim Cook’s Epic Interview

The Apple CEO covered almost everything—but it’s what he didn’t say that’s most interesting.

To celebrate five years as CEO of Apple, Tim Cook has given a very long, exclusive interview to the Washington Post about his experiences so far.  But what he didn’t say is just as interesting as what he did.

The interview—all 10,000 words of it—covers a lot of ground, from what it was like to take over from Steve Jobs to Cook’s unusually loud voice on social issues. But he also spoke at length about the development of Apple’s forthcoming products and features. Here, we read between the lines of some of Cook’s utterances.

“Your question seems to imply that we’re behind [in developing AI]. Let’s take a look at that. We’ve been shipping Siri since 2011.”

Cook took exception to the fact that his interviewer, Jena McGregor, thought Apple needed to “catch up with the AI efforts from companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon.” Cook was right to argue that Siri stole the company an early lead in artificial intelligence, but Google wasted no time in responding. In the last couple of years, publicly available AI systems from the likes of Google and Amazon certainly have outpaced releases by Apple. That much was made evident at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference, when Apple launched new software features based on machine learning—such as facial recognition and more intuitive predictive typing—that have existed in products from Facebook and Google for some time. Where Apple does have an edge, though, is with privacy: the latest AI processing from Apple is all carried out on your device, rather than in the cloud, which means your data is (theoretically) kept under your control.

“I think [augmented reality] is extremely interesting and sort of a core technology. So, yes, it’s something we’re doing a lot of things on behind [the] curtain.”

It’s no secret that Apple has been experimenting with virtual and augmented reality. A set of conference proceedings dating back to 1996 mentions a “prototype wearable computer system from Apple Computer with a Virtual I/O head mounted display.” More recently, Apple has published patents for VR headsets and recruited staff with experience in developing 3-D graphics for virtual and augmented reality. It’s also acquired a number of AR startups, among them PrimeSense and Metaio. Cook mentioned just a few weeks ago on an earnings call that Apple has invested in AR and will continue to do so. Quite what the result of all that research and development will be, though, remains unclear. Most likely is that Apple will follow the simplistic Pokémon Go trend with something a little more intelligent—like the platform that Baidu recently announced. Baidu’s system makes use of machine learning to add detail to the real world, and it plans to bake those features into some of its most widely used apps. A similar tactic could see Apple including AR features in its flagship apps, though that’s purely speculative.

“It became clear that the trade-off … was essentially putting hundreds of millions of people at risk for a phone that may or may not have anything on it. We thought this actually is a clear decision. A hard one, but a clear one.”

The Apple CEO was nothing but confident in discussing the company’s decision to fight the FBI over unlocking the San Bernardino iPhone. He explains to the Washington Post that engineers at Apple very quickly realized that they could create a tool for the authorities that would be able to unlock an iPhone—the question, really, was whether it should. As MIT Technology Review has pointed out, there is no technical middle ground over this question: either you let law enforcement agencies into encrypted devices and run the risk of letting others find a similar way in, or you don’t. But Cook didn’t even stop to consider that he could be wrong—and there are some compelling arguments that indicate he might be. Cook has suggested in the past that law enforcement agencies should be locked out of devices by software, but that they could “come to you and say, ‘Open your phone.’ … They could pass a law that says you have to do it, or you have to do it or there’s some penalty.” There are several problems with this: The approach is useless when the phone belongs to a dead victim, it seems to weaken the protection against self-incrimination embodied in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and it would likely be taken advantage of by criminals if the choice boiled down to providing incriminating evidence or simply facing contempt-of-court charges. In short, things may not be quite as clear as Cook suggests.

“I can’t answer a question about something we haven’t announced. We’ve always viewed that people love surprises. We don’t have enough anymore in our lives.”

Cook was perhaps most unwilling to discuss anything to do with Apple’s plans to develop a car—but we know it’s doing something that involves automobiles. Apple has already introduced its own software into vehicles in the form of CarPlay, but there’s clearly more afoot. The company has hired a slew of robotics engineers with the expertise required to make self-driving vehicles, and one industry source told MIT Technology Review late last year that he’d met with engineers at an Apple-owned subsidiary to discuss automated driving technology. Rumors continue to swirl about what, exactly, the company is working on, but the latest reports claim that Apple is most likely building autonomous software for vehicles rather than building a whole car. Perhaps, as Cook suggests, we should all just look forward to his surprise announcement.

(Read more: Washington Post)

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