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Amid a Heated A.I. Race, Apple Struggles to Retain Top Talent

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The heated Big Tech artificial intelligence race is making Apple very nervous. Stagnant product development and lagging research in large language models (LLMs), the underlying technology powering applications like ChatGPT, have hampered the iPhone maker’s ability to retain top talent and introduce a meaningful A.I. product to compete with Microsoft and Google.

Although Apple’s business is more focused on hardware and less reliant on web search—a key area of generative A.I. application—than Google and Microsoft, the opportunities afforded by recent breakthroughs in A.I. are apparently too important to miss for the world’s most valuable tech company. In recent months, Apple engineers, including members of the ‌Siri‌ team, have been testing GPT-like language-generation concepts on a weekly basis, the New York Times reported in March.

At the center of Apple’s A.I. effort is a team led by John Giannandrea, the company’s head of machine learning and A.I. strategy.

Giannandrea, a former tech executive at Google, has been leading Apple’s A.I. projects, including voice assistant Siri, since April 2018. However, as A.I. competition intensifies among Big Tech companies, Giannandrea’s team is embattled in a talent war with competitors.

Late last year, the Siri team lost three star engineers to Google, the Information reported on April 27. Srinivasan Venkatachary, Steven Baker and Anand Shukla all joined Apple in November 2018 under Giannandrea’s leadership. They left between October and November 2022 to work on Google’s A.I. projects, according to their LinkedIn profiles.

Top engineers believe Google is a better place to work

Google CEO Sundar Pichai personally wooed the group. While Apple CEO Tim Cook tried to persuade them to stay, Venkatachary, Baker and Shukla believed Google was a better place to work on LLMs, according to anonymous sources speaking to the Information.

Apple hasn’t responded to an inquiry to comment on the three engineers’ departures.

Venkatachary and Baker now both hold the title of VP of engineering at Google. Venkatachary’s work focuses on “A.I. product expansion,” while Baker is working on “new stuff,” according to their LinkedIn pages. Shukla has assumed the title of distinguished engineer, a high-level engineering position at Google.

John Burkey, a former Apple engineer on the ‌Siri‌ team between 2014 and 2015, told the New York Times in March that the Siri‌ voice assistant is built on “clunky code” that made it very difficult for engineers to add new features. As a result, there was no path for ‌Siri‌ to become a “creative assistant” like ChatGPT, Burkey said.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella expressed similar views on voice assistant products in general. Voice assistants are “dumb as a rock,” Nadella said in an interview with the Financial Times in March.

A.I. hype fuels the talent war in tech

The past 12 months have been marked by unprecedented cost-cutting measures across the tech sector, with Google and many large tech companies laying off tens of thousands of employees and cutting back on office perks. Interestingly, Apple is the only Big Tech firm that has avoided massive layoffs, and yet stability hasn’t stopped its top engineers from leaving for more rewarding jobs.

It’s not just Apple losing talent to Google. Earlier this year, the Information reported Google’s top A.I. scientists were quitting to join OpenAI because they believed what OpenAI was working on was more promising. Yesterday (May 1), University of Toronto professor Geoffrey Hinton, who is known in the industry as “the godfather of A.I.,” left his part-time advisory role at Google, fearing the tech company was moving too quickly without considering the social impact of A.I.

A.I. scientists and engineers are often among the highest-paid roles at tech companies. And large firms in the industry offer similarly lucrative compensation packages. At Apple, for example, a median software engineer makes $287,000 a year, including salary, bonus and stock awards, according to levels.fyi, a tech salary tracking site.

But money is usually not the top consideration when they choose where to work. “Scientists and engineers do go after high compensations,” Kyunghyun Cho, a data science professor at New York University and former research scientist at Facebook AI Research, told Observer. “But, at the end of the day, what they are looking for is an environment where they can flourish and contribute to a success.”

GPT’s reaction to this article:

As an AI language model, I don’t have personal opinions, but based on the information presented in the article, it seems like Apple is facing challenges in retaining top talent in the AI field, particularly in the area of large language models. The competition among Big Tech companies to develop AI technology is intense, and engineers and scientists are often drawn to companies where they can work on more promising projects and contribute to success. While Apple has been focused on hardware rather than web search, recent breakthroughs in AI are too important to miss, and the company is making efforts to catch up in this area.

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