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Apple Quietly Acquires Privacy-Conscious AI Start-Up Silk Labs

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Apple’s AI push into on-device machine learning continues, with news of its acquisition of Silk Labs.

According to a new report from The Information, Apple has quietly acquired an artificial intelligence startup called Silk Labs that specializes in making artificial intelligence software lightweight enough to fit onto consumer hardware like smartphones and cameras.

The deal was made earlier this year, explains the report. There’s no information about how much Apple spent on acquiring the startup, but the website notes that the acquisition was likely a small one for Apple due to the fact that Silk Labs only employs around half a dozen employees.

Silk Labs specializes in making AI software that is lightweight enough to work on hardware such as smartphones, cameras and digital home devices. The company was founded in 2015 by Andreas Gal, Chris Jones, and Michael Vines. It raised $2.5 million USD in funding in 2016 from Sparkland Capital, Qihoo 360 Technology and a group of private investors. Gal was previously the chief technology officer at Mozilla.

Silk Labs was perhaps best known for a 2016 crowdfunded home monitoring camera called Sense, but it wound up canceling the project a few months later and refunding backers. Silk’s website explains the product’s underlying technology that ultimately attracted Apple: “the most performant on-device deep learning engine on the market.” Basically, Silk developed on-device AI software to detect people, faces, objects, and audio — rather than relying on cloud servers to handle all the processing.

“Privacy and security are built into our company’s DNA. With every line of code we write and in every design decision we make, Silk takes great measures to ensure that user data on the Silk Intelligence Platform is fully protected at all times,” the firm pledges on its website.

As such, the acquisition closely matches Apple’s feelings about the need to put AI/machine intelligence at the edge. Devices must be smart enough to function when they are offline and secure enough not to damage the privacy of customers.

Apple CEO Tim Cook has frequently hit out at companies like Google, which send lots of user data to the cloud to enable machine learning services. But like Apple itself, Silk Labs has a focus on privacy and does all of its data processing on local hardware.

Apple’s Craig Federighi has put it this way, saying, “When it comes to performing analysis of your data. We’re doing it on your devices, keeping your personal data under your control.”

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