Exclusive: Apple expanding its Seattle engineering center, making a big bet on artificial intelligence
By Todd Bishop
Apple plans to significantly expand its engineering operations in Seattle — further establishing the satellite office as a hub for developing future artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies for products such as the iPhone, MacBook, Apple Watch and other Apple devices and services.
The company, legendary for its secrecy, shared new details about its Seattle operations and ambitions in advance of the University of Washington’s announcement this morning of a new $1 million endowed professorship in artificial intelligence and machine learning, made possible by Apple’s acquisition of Seattle startup Turi last year. Apple is seeking deeper connections with the UW and others in the community as it continues to build its presence in the city.
“We’re trying to find the best people who are excited about AI and machine learning — excited about research and thinking long term but also bringing those ideas into products that impact and delight our customers,” said computer scientist Carlos Guestrin, Apple director of machine learning. “The bar is high, but we’re going to be hiring as quickly as we can find people that meet our high bar, which is exciting.”
Other engineering efforts taking place in Apple’s Seattle office include groups focused on Maps, iCloud and iTunes.
The news comes as Apple prepares for the opening of its new campus in Cupertino, Calif., announcing this week that employees will start moving into that facility in April. The company’s team in Seattle collaborates “extensively” with groups in Cupertino, including efforts to build new AI features into upcoming Apple products, Guestrin said.
Apple’s expansion in Seattle is part of a surge in artificial intelligence activity in the region, building on a foundation in software engineering and cloud computing, and promising to cement the region’s status as a global powerhouse in the field. Machine learning, a key ingredient in the larger field of artificial intelligence is the ability for programs to learn from data and user activity, to take specific actions without being explicitly programmed to do so.
Companies pursuing breakthroughs in AI and machine learning in the region include tech titans Amazon and Microsoft, as well as startups and research groups such as the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.
“There’s a great opportunity for AI in Seattle. It’s the place to do it,” said Guestrin, the University of Washington professor and Turi founder, who joined Apple with its acquisition of the machine learning startup last year. The UW is naming the new endowed professorship after Guestrin, whose own professorship was endowed by Amazon, originally bringing him to the region from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012.
Guestrin spoke with GeekWire at Apple’s engineering center in the Two Union Square skyscraper, where the company currently leases two floors and has committed to take additional floors to accommodate its expansion plans. Apple declined to specify the size of the expansion, but sources say a lease should be finalized soon.
“It’s great to have Apple expanding in Seattle,” said Ed Lazowska, the University of Washington computer science professor. “It’s one of the great American tech companies. And unlike some others, it doesn’t have a lot of satellite engineering centers.”
Apple established its first formal engineering office in Seattle with its 2014 acquisition of Union Bay Networks. It’s part of a wave of Silicon Valley companies, including Facebook and Google, that have expanded to the region to tap into its deep pool of engineering talent. But unlike many others, Apple hasn’t spoken publicly about its plans until now.
Last fall, after Apple acquired Turi, sources close to the deal told GeekWire that the purchase price was around $200 million, a sizable startup acquisition that underscores the significance of machine learning and artificial intelligence to the company.
The Turi engineering team, which has been based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, will be moving into Two Union Square as part of the company’s AI and machine learning expansion.
Apple says it employs 1,200 people in Washington state, including its Seattle engineering center, Apple store retail employees, and a little-known development center in Vancouver, Wash. The company declined to say how many employees are in the Seattle engineering center. Over the past two years, Apple says Washington state experienced the largest percentage increase in Apple employment of any state outside of California, largely due the growth of its Seattle team.
But until now, the company has kept such a low profile in Seattle that its name isn’t listed on the main directory in the Two Union Square lobby. Stepping off the elevator on one of its existing floors, a simple black-and-white card on the wall reads “Apple Lobby,” with an arrow pointing to a locked door. Inside, just past the brightly lit lobby, a conference room offers a stunning view of the Space Needle and the rapidly transforming South Lake Union neighborhood.
Apple is still notoriously secretive about its product development pipeline. The company declined to allow pictures inside the office or to take GeekWire on a tour past the lobby and adjacent conference room. However, the company has become more public about some of its activities under CEO Tim Cook, who has stressed the importance of continuing to build artificial intelligence and machine learning into Apple’s products.
Guestrin said he and the former Turi employees have experienced an “incredible transition” to Apple, forging a strong connection with teams in Cupertino, and see a big opportunity to use artificial intelligence to further enhance Apple products and services. He picked up his iPhone as an example, pointing out that he and other users already feel an emotional connection to the device, thanks to Apple’s well-known design, interface and user experience.
“But what’s going to make a major difference in the future, in addition to those things, for me to be emotionally connected to this device, is the intelligence that it has — how much it understands me, how much it can predict what I need and what I want, and how valuable it is at being a companion to me,” he said. “AI is going to be at the core of that, and we’re going to be some of the people who help with that, here in Seattle, but of course there will be tons of groups in Cupertino doing amazing things with that, too.”
Guestrin said the group is doing long-term research, looking ahead three to 10 years, but also focusing on the near-term, developing new features for upcoming Apple products. “We work on the whole spectrum,” he said. “It’s not just about doing research, but it’s about the technology transfer and how that gets embedded into experiences that customers love.”