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Apple Takes Up Smart Speaker Gauntlet with New HomePod

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 12.18.55

Apple’s new HomePod smart loudspeaker (via Apple)

Apple has joined the smart-speaker fray with the launch of its new HomePod— a voice-activated loudspeaker  powered by virtual assistant Siri.

The new device, unveiled at Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference in San José, California, will have to face the portentous competition of Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet’s Home speakers— both of which can answer questions, perform small tasks like setting a timer, and manage smart home appliances such as lightbulbs and connected thermostats.

Maybe to better position its new product in an increasingly crowded landscape, Apple is marketing HomePod first and foremost as a smart music player, rather than as a virtual voice-activated butler—although the speaker will be able to carry out about the same tasks as its counterparts.

Such circumspection could be due in part to the fact that—while Siri pioneered voice-recognition technology in mobile devices — the software has not improved much at understanding human speech since its 2011 launch, being gradually outflanked by rival systems.

HomePod, which will come at the rather substantial price of $349  when it hits the market in December (that is double Amazon Echo’s price tag), is Apple’s latest move to claw back its leadership role in the field of Artificial Intelligence, after losing ground for years to fellow Silicon Valley residents such as Alphabet and Facebook.

That was partly a result of the company’s extreme secretiveness about its technical breakthroughs: a quirk which discouraged many world-class AI researchers from joining the company, as they would have been unable to make their research known to the academic community.

Apple seems to have finally shed this attitude by joining several technology heavyweights in the  Partnership on AI research group in January.

A few days ago, Apple announced the creation of a new chip devoted solely to handle its handsets’ AI processes. Earlier this year, the company also revealed that Siri would start accessing iCloud user data in order to crank up its voice-recognition skills.

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