Apple Acquires Artificial Intelligence Startup

The purchase comes during fevered interest in artificial intelligence, or AI, in Silicon Valley and among other tech companies.

by Phillip Molnar and Gary Robbins, The San Diego Union-Tribune / January 11, 2016
Apple CEO Tim Cook at the company's product launch on Sept. 9, 2014. via Flickr/DownloadsourceES

(TNS) -- Apple has purchased Emotient, a San Diego-based maker of facial expression recognition software that can detect emotions to assist advertisers, retailers, doctors and many other professions.

Apple confirmed the purchase on Friday, but did not give details of the deal. Emotient could not be reached for comment.

“Apple buys smaller technology companies from time to time, and we generally do not discuss our purpose or plans,” Apple said in an emailed statement.

The purchase comes during fevered interest in artificial intelligence, or AI, in Silicon Valley and among other tech companies.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said last week that he was attempting to build an A.I. system to control his home. Google, Microsoft, Amazon and entrepreneur Elon Musk have all recently made high-profiled forays into research and development of AI. Apple already has Siri, a digital assistant on iPhones that responds to user questions.

Several past projects from Emotient could easily be viewed as beneficial to Apple. The San Diego company built a prototype sentiment analysis application for Google Glass. It also worked with Innerscope Research to analyze the reaction of focus groups to ads shown during the Super Bowl, something that could have been interesting for its famous 1984 commercial.

Emotient was founded by six scientists from the University of California, San Diego in 2012. It uses software that recognizes facial patterns as they come into view of a camera. It had previously raised $8 million from investors, including Intel Capital.

Emotient’s software can detect emotions including joy, disgust, anger and surprise. It mainly sold its product as a way to give real-time feedback to advertisers and retailers.

“We think that will be increasingly important in a world where how walk-up customers are being treated in general has never been more important,” Ken Denman, chief executive of Emotient, told the San Diego Union-Tribune in March 2014. “Given the trends these days in retail, the worst thing that can happen is for someone to walk out of your store and give a Tweet about a bad experience.”

Emotient’s technology is largely based on research by Javier R. Movellan and Marian Bartlett, researchers at UC San Diego.

"We’re delighted at the success of Emotient getting purchased by Apple," said Paul Roben, Associate Vice Chancellor for Innovation at UC San Diego. "This is how the system should work. We brought all of our innovation resources together, spun out a company, which developed a technology. This is going to generate enthusiasm for the kind of entrepreneurship we do here."

UC San Diego has a sizable group of AI specialists, and it is planning to add more as part of its long-term growth in robotics. The campus has tried to jump into the big time by hiring star faculty, but has so far failed to seal some key deals.

The university made an unsuccessful attempt to recruit Gil Pratt, a former Defense Advance Research Projects Agency roboticist who recently joined Toyota. A short time later, Toyota announced that Pratt would oversee a $1 billion AI research program in Palo Alto, near Stanford University.

Despite a few setbacks, the university viewed the sale as a confirmation of what it was doing.

“The purchase of Emotient also highlights how relevant artificial-intelligence and machine-vision expertise is right now. And these are areas where UC San Diego is actively investing yet more research resources.,” said Albert Pisano, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering at UC San Diego.

The business use of the technology could be web searches that use a camera to track facial expressions during a purchase, said Heather Honea, a marketing professor at San Diego State University.

She noted technology already used by major Internet companies customizes advertisements to users based on past purchases, image recognition and their online behavior. If facial recognition was used it would be a richer set of data — even if turning on your webcam for an iTunes purchase sounds odd right now.

Honea said history shows that people get very concerned about a new technology at first, see how it works in their life, and then change their minds.

“I suspect at first everyone would say ‘There’s no way. I’m not doing that,’” she said. “Then, the first time someone finds exactly the pair of shoes they were looking for with minimal effort, then they’ll click on ‘OK, I’ll allow it’ the next time.”

©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.