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Apple is buying a Seattle-area startup to get smarter about artificial intelligence

The company is reportedly paying $200 million for Turi, run by a University of Washington professor.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

With artificial intelligence clearly the next big thing for the giants of tech, Apple is buying a Seattle machine learning startup.

The company confirmed to Recode it is buying Turi, which earlier in life was known as both GraphLab and Dato, It grew out of the GraphLab open-source project, which companies such as Pandora used to power recommendations.

Carlos Guestrin
Carlos Guestrin
Carlos Guestrin

"Apple buys smaller companies from time to time and we generally do not discuss our purposes or plans," Apple said, repeating the statement it gives whenever it buys a company.

The team, which is expected to remain in Seattle, is led by Carlos Guestrin, the Amazon professor of machine learning at the University of Washington.

According to GeekWire, a Seattle-area tech news site which broke news of the deal, Apple is paying around $200 million for Turi.

Guestrin also runs a well-regarded conference in the field, the most recent edition of which took place last month in San Francisco, drawing hundreds of experts in the field.

Apple’s purchase of Turi comes as it and the other giants of the tech world — Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon — are increasingly focused on computer learning and artificial intelligence. While Apple was early with its Siri personal assistant, other companies have made big moves into bots, while Siri has evolved rather slowly.

Also, with Apple’s big push around privacy, the company has historically had less access to user data than its rivals. The company did announce a plan at this year’s Worldwide Developer Conference to open up Siri to developers and start collecting more user data. It said it would use a technique known as differential privacy to protect individual users’ data.

CEO Tim Cook also spoke about the importance of machine intelligence in the company’s most recent earnings call.

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

Apple is also using the technology in other areas, including recommending songs, apps and news, Cook said. "Machine learning is improving facial and image recognition in photos, predicting word choice while typing in messages and mail, and providing context awareness in maps for better directions. Deep learning within our products even enables them to recognize usage patterns and improve their own battery life."

Investors in Turi include Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group, New Enterprise Associates and Paul Allen’s Vulcan.

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