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Tina Casey headshot

At Apple, Pre-empting Employee Activism Makes Bottom Line Sense

Addressing employee activism by keeping an eye on social concerns is a smart strategy: note Apple's actions following the acquisition of an artificial intelligence startup.
By Tina Casey
Employee Activism

In the race to recruit top talent, tech giants are paying closer attention to the concerns of current and prospective employees. LGBTQ rights, the climate crisis, immigration, free speech and privacy issues are all in the mix. The commingling of social concerns with bottom-line employee recruitment goals can have some interesting results, as illustrated by recent reports involving Apple, the startup Xnor.ai and Project Maven, an artificial intelligence initiative of the Department of Defense.

Apple polishes privacy cred with Xnor.ai acquisition

Apple recently acquired the Seattle-based startup Xnor.ai, without fanfare. The transaction flew under the media radar until January 15, when reporters Alan Boyle, Taylor Soper and Todd Bishop of Geekwire got wind of the deal through unofficial sources and other clues. Later that day, Apple confirmed to Axios that it had indeed acquired the company.

There could be any number of reasons why Apple purchased Xnor.ai. The theory put forward by Geekwire and other news organizations involves privacy issues.

Xnor.ai specializes in applying artificial intelligence to mobile devices. That field overlaps with edge computing, which refers to systems that collect, store, and deploy data at or near the point of use, rather than sending data back and forth to remote servers.

That’s where Apple comes in. Apple’s relationship with law enforcement agencies has become peppered with disputes over iPhone user privacy in recent years, as investigators seek access to information. The latest case involves unlocking the iPhone of a person facing terrorism charges.

Converting iPhones and other mobile devices to edge computing could help Apple improve user privacy and enhance performance, while detaching itself from disputes that have generated substantial negative publicity for the company in recent years.

Another explanation for the Xnor.ai acquisition

There is also a more straightforward explanation for Apple’s interest in Xnor.ai.

Apple began the New Year touting Apple Arcade and other new products in its Service line. With the help of Xnor.ai’s expertise, the company is positioned to strengthen its foothold in high-performance mobile gaming and smartwatch applications, while possibly expanding into small scale drone applications as well.

Nevertheless, the story took a sideways twist at the end of January, when the technology news organization The Information reported that Apple terminated Xnor.ai’s ongoing work with Project Maven, according to an anonymous “person familiar with the matter.”

A materials researcher examines experimental data on the an artificial intelligence planner that is part of the DOD's Project Maven.
A materials researcher examines experimental data on the an artificial intelligence planner that is part of the DOD's Project Maven. 

Photo: A materials researcher examines experimental data on the an artificial intelligence planner that is part of the DOD's Project Maven. (Image credit: Department of Defense)

Project Maven is a drone-based artificial intelligence initiative of the Defense Department. It caught the media eye in 2018, when thousands of Google employees pressured their company to terminate its involvement in the project over privacy and facial recognition issues.

Pre-empting employee activism

Apple has not confirmed The Information’s account as of this writing, but the story was picked up and repeated by a flood of other news organizations, Apple fan sites and technology blogs.

Some of the coverage drew a direct connection to employee activism at Google, and to consumer boycotts as well.

Fast Company, for example, wrote that “it seems the higher-ups at Apple either had ideological or moral objections to the project outright or just didn’t want to suffer the consequences of similar employee (or consumer) protests.”

Whether or not Apple confirms the news, the consumer angle lends more credibility to the Information’s report. Xnor.ai’s innovative technology can be a two-edged sword. It adds a new dimension of performance to mobile devices, but it could also be deployed to monitor the person holding or controlling the device, and anyone within their range. That raises precisely the kind of user privacy issues that Apple seeks to avoid.

In that context, the more distance Apple puts between itself and Project Maven, the better.

The news also casts Apple in a favorable light from an employee recruitment perspective. Project Maven dovetails neatly with Xnor.AI’s technology, but it is clearly out of place at Apple, which has begun to pitch itself as an arts and entertainment hub in addition to its longstanding apps and game business.

Apple is now competing for top creative talent in film, television and music, in addition to fueling its ongoing technology business with experts and innovators. Entertainment and tech are two hotbeds of individual and employee activism. A connection with Project Maven would almost certainly put Apple at a disadvantage for recruiting in the performing arts and technology fields alike.

The Information report also follows research indicating that public opinion of tech firms has swung sharply in a negative direction over the past two years.

The news does not erase other issues faced by Apple, but it does illustrate how tech companies must navigate an increasingly complex landscape of social issues in order to recruit employees in fulfillment of basic bottom line concerns.

Image credit: Carles Rabada/Unsplash, Yiran Ding/Unsplash

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey