Four years ago, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos granted $2 million to endow two professorships at the University of Washington, for Carlos Guestrin, and his wife, Emily Fox. The two teach in the computer science and statistics departments, respectively.

Guestrin won another, far larger sum from Apple last week, when it acquired his machine learning startup, Turi. The deal is said to be worth around $200 million, as GeekWire first reported (and a person familiar with the matter confirmed to Inc.). The startup creates algorithms, and helps other developers embed machine learning functions into their apps. Turi currently works with over 100 paying customers.

The news comes as Apple makes a more aggressive push to develop its own AI tool set. The company has acquired more than 15 businesses in the last year, including VocalIQ, which focused on making voice assistants sound more realistic, and Perceptio, which developed systems to let companies run AI on their smartphones without sharing much personal data. At the Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco this summer, Apple also announced that it would bring new capabilities to iMessage, adding a feature that automatically translates text into emoji.

Machine learning technology lets computers recognize and respond to human cues. Digital assistants like Siri (Apple), Google Now, Cortana (Microsoft), and Alexa (Amazon), can perform tasks for their human operators using this type of software.

Turi grew out of an open-source lab project at Carnegie Mellon University in 2009, and has so far raised more than $25 million in funding, according to CrunchBase. The company did not immediately respond to Inc.'s request for comment.

Investors credit the success of the company to the founder's aptitude for artificial intelligence. "Carlos Guestrin is a unique talent in both his deep understanding of machine learning and artificial intelligence," says Matt McIlwain, a managing director at Madrona Venture Group. The VC firm participated in Turi's $6.75 million Series A round in 2013. "His ability to listen to customers and translate those customer needs into products." 

The race for a smarter smartphone 

Some suggest that Apple has lagged behind other tech companies in building out its AI tools. Both Facebook and Google have rolled out more "advanced" chatbots in recent months, as Piper Jaffrey analysts pointed out. (Apple historically goes to great lengths to protect consumer privacy, thus preventing it from making the same kinds of advances.)

Still, at the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the tech company did announce plans to open up Siri to developers for the first time. This will allow them collect some user data without tracking those individual users. 

"We have focused our AI efforts on the features that best enhance the customer experience," Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the company's most recent earnings call. "For example, machine learning enables Siri to understand words as well as the intent behind them. That means Siri does a better job of understanding and even predicting what you want, then delivering the right responses to requests."

Published on: Aug 9, 2016