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The quiet Apple executive behind Apple’s AI strategy

In Business
June 07, 2024

Apple is behind on artificial intelligence.

Now, the company is getting ready to unleash its first wave of user-facing AI products. And behind that push is John Giannandrea, a Silicon Valley veteran who is Apple’s top executive in charge of AI strategy.

On Monday, Apple will hold its annual developers conference called WWDC, where it’s expected to show customers and investors its take on generative AI across products like the iPhone, iPad and Mac, the fruit of Giannandrea’s work.

There’s enormous pressure on Apple to deliver an impressive slate of AI products and services. In interviews with CNBC, several people who know and have worked with Giannandrea over the years depict him as a humble and ahead-of-the-curve technologist, a quality that could be essential to Apple catching up in AI.

Siri is a mess and struggles with even the most basic questions. Apple doesn’t sell a product like the AI chatbots being pushed out by Microsoft or startups OpenAI and Anthropic. It doesn’t sell powerful chips to cloud companies running AI services like Nvidia. Apple stock has lagged while shares of its peers have ballooned this year on the promise of AI. The stock is up just 1% this year, while Nvidia, which overtook Apple in market value on Wednesday, is up 144%. Apple also lost its spot as the most valuable public company in the world to another AI leader, Microsoft, in January.

Apple declined to comment.

Wall Street sees this as a moment for Apple to prove it’s not behind on AI, serving as a catalyst for the stock through the second half of the year and spurring a hot upgrade cycle for the next iPhone model.

“We believe that AI features, combined with other Apple ecosystem investments and hardware upgrades for iPhone 16, has the potential to drive upside to product estimates by increasing upgrade rates,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in a note to investors this week.

Now it’s up to Giannandrea and his team to match those expectations.

As the tech world became increasingly obsessed with AI over the last 18 months or so, Apple began to talk more openly about how AI powers product features and development.

“We view AI and [machine learning] as fundamental, core technologies, and they are virtually embedded in every product that we build,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told CNBC in August of 2023.

Until now, Giannandrea’s team has worked on AI features that run behind the scenes on Apple devices and software. That includes things like an accessibility feature that can digitally mimic someone’s voice if they lose the ability to speak themselves, or automatic edits that make your iPhone photos look better.

If you ask the folks at Apple, the company has been using AI for many years to power what you do on your Apple devices without you even knowing about it. That’s expected to evolve into more user-facing features this year, like improvements to the Siri digital assistant, a partnership with OpenAI that’ll add the ChatGPT-maker’s tech to the iPhone’s software and sophisticated voice controls for its apps, according to a Bloomberg report last week.

People who have worked with Giannandrea over the years who spoke to CNBC characterize him as a humble, mild-mannered technologist who doesn’t seek attention like more flashy Silicon Valley executives typically do.

His most notable start was at a company called General Magic, which spun out of Apple and began business in the early 1990s making software for PDAs, the predecessors to today’s modern smartphones. Late in that decade he cofounded TellMe, a startup that made a voice-activated, online information service.

A TellMe cofounder, Anthony Accardi, said Giannandrea always seemed ahead of his time, working on technology like running software in the cloud many years before it became the standard.

“He has the foresight to recognize this is an inevitability and direction we’re going in the future,” Accardi said.

Giannandrea, known by most as “JG,” joined Google after the search giant acquired another startup he cofounded called Metaweb.

Geoffrey Hinton, known as one of the “godfathers” of AI, worked with Giannandrea at Google. Hinton said Giannandrea had a rare skillset among tech executives as both a great researcher and manager. Hinton pointed to a generative AI breakthrough Google made last decade: the ability to automatically caption images using AI.

“He really understood the importance of it,” Hinton said.

By 2018, Giannandrea oversaw AI at Google, and it was seen as a huge coup when Apple poached him that year. Within eight months, he was promoted to Apple’s leadership team, reporting directly to Cook along with other top executives like Chief Operating Officer Jeff Williams and services boss Eddy Cue. It was the biggest sign yet Apple was taking AI seriously, especially for future projects like its now-defunct self-driving car project.

So why leave Google, the perceived leader in AI at the time, for Apple? He didn’t like how leadership at Google had trouble making decisions and executing them, instead treating parts of the business like a skunkworks research lab, according to one person who spoke to Giannandrea recently. He found the opposite at Apple: leadership makes a decision, and then the rest of the company gets behind it to make it happen.

But in the six years since joining Apple, Giannandrea hasn’t been in the public view like his peers on Apple’s leadership team often are, showing off the company’s latest products and updates in flashy promotional videos littered with slick edits and dad jokes. Yet his many years of experience and expertise have earned him wide respect among other Silicon Valley leaders.

“I still go to him for wisdom,” said Emil Michael, a former top executive at Uber who also cofounded TellMe with Giannandrea.

Outside of Apple, Giannandrea sits on the board of SETI, the nonprofit organization founded in 1984 to detect radio signals from potential intelligent life across the cosmos. He also ran a data center business with his wife in recent years, which he eventually sold, adding to his list of successful exits at tech companies he cofounded.

At SETI, Giannadrea is an active and engaged board member, and even gave some of his own money to help fund a new project called COSMIC that uses powerful computers to analyze radio signals from outer space, SETI CEO Bill Diamond told CNBC. Giannandrea also sat on a SETI review committee to give feedback on research plans for planetary defenses against asteroids, according to Diamond.

“He’s got a very scientific mind, an engineering mind,” Diamond said. “The question about life beyond Earth fascinates him.”

Some who know Giannandrea told CNBC they’d be surprised if he made an appearance during Apple’s WWDC keynote next week, instead delegating the spotlight to members of his team or Craig Federighi, Apple’s head of software.

“JG is not a showman,” one person who knows him well told CNBC. “That’s not his vibe.”

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