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However you package it, Apple Intelligence is AI.

However you package it, Apple Intelligence is AI.


While companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have spoken openly about their AI efforts, Apple has been quiet for years. Now, finally, its executives are speaking up. I had a chance to see it one day. In an attempt to dispel the impression that the most innovative of the tech giants is lagging behind at this crucial time, software leader Craig Federighi, services chief Eddy Cue, and top researchers argued that Apple has been a leader in AI for years, but just hasn't done much with it. Advanced machine learning is already deeply embedded in some products, and more advances are to come, such as advances in Siri. And because Apple values ​​data security more than its competitors, the company's AI efforts will be distinguished by strict privacy standards. I asked how many people are working on AI at Apple. Federighi replied, quite a lot. Another executive stressed that AI could be transformative, but that Apple doesn't want to get involved in any of the mystical aspects that excite some in the field, such as the pursuit of superintelligence. This will ultimately be a technology that is very much Apple's way of doing things, one executive said.

That conversation took place eight years ago, when deep learning AI was the latest tech trend. But a year later, a breakthrough called Transformer ushered in a new wave of smart software called generative AI, powering OpenAI's groundbreaking ChatGPT. Soon, people began judging tech companies by how aggressively they jumped on the trend. OpenAI's rivals moved quickly. Apple, on the other hand, did not. Many of the company's brightest AI scientists were working on self-driving cars and its expensive Vision Pro mixed-reality headset. Over the past year or so, Apple has pulled talent from those projects, no longer building self-driving cars, and instead hammered out its own generative AI strategy. And at its Worldwide Developers Conference this week, Apple revealed its plans.

Unusually for such an event, the news was not about a product, but about Apple's declaration that it was working on generative AI. In an interview after the keynote, CEO Tim Cook explained this unusual turn of events. He said it was clear that people wanted to know the company's take on generative AI in particular. But, as in 2016, there was a caveat. The company would embrace generative AI, but in a very Apple-like way. The company even refused to label its technology as artificial intelligence. Instead, it coined the term Apple Intelligence. This seems to be an attempt to distance Apple from the scary side of this powerful technology wave. Apple has no interest in chasing the singularity or making the movie “Her” happen. The company is using this new tool to improve productivity and creativity, which will be easily embraced by Apple's version of AI, just like the intimidating technologies of the past.

This approach is well timed. I believe the era of generative AI began with ChatGPT’s November 2022 release. We’ve been trying to figure out what it means all of 2023, and now many are experiencing the urge to reject it. They rebel against the hallucinations of AI, they’re angry about the possibility of losing their jobs, and most still don’t understand what AI can actually do for them. In 2024, smart companies are focusing on how they can actually use this amazing technology in mundane scenarios. Apple proclaimed that “AI is for us” (the only time the letters AI were used in the keynote), a conscious evocation of the original Macintosh slogan. Perhaps Apple will popularize AI to the masses in the same way they popularized the graphical user interface with the Mac.

In contrast to its lofty ambitions, the products Apple touted in its keynote were nothing revolutionary. Many of the demos were email summarization, transcription, auto-completion, inbox organization, paragraph creation from prompts, and removal of inclusions from images. These are bare minimum requirements in the age of Generation AI. Apple’s pitch, as always, is that it will deliver these advancements organically woven into your normal workflow so that users will actually use these features and be happy with them. Apple also gave these products some nice twists. The Photos app promises more in-depth search capabilities, using AI to determine what and who is in a photo, and to search for specific images from vague prompts. In auto-generated email replies, Apple can in certain cases ask simple questions that can be answered with a single click (do you want to meet this person in person, when do you want to meet them?) to elicit responses that reflect the user’s intent. More importantly, because users of Apple’s ecosystem have a wealth of personal information on their phones and computers, Apple’s AI can use that data to deliver the right output and keep those details on the device to protect user privacy. Speaking on the subject, Apple SVP Federighi described it as intelligence that understands you (Apple even claims to hire outside investigators to make sure your data is truly secure).

The most interesting part of Apple's announcement was about Siri, the AI ​​assistant that has become something of a curio in the age of generative AI. Apple promised that in the future, perhaps as early as 2025, Siri will not only be good at conversation, but will also be a uniquely powerful personal assistant that will execute complex requests that involve multiple apps. Ironically, this was the vision of the original Siri team in 2011, but was rejected by Steve Jobs, who sought simplicity, because the underlying technology wasn't ready yet. Dag Kittlaus, who led the team when Apple launched the product, says this is what was missing from the original Siri. Kittlaus and some of his key colleagues later tried to realize this vision with a startup called Viv, which now lives on as a Samsung product called Bixby. To make such a complex system work, it is essential to have a critical mass of developers on board. The WWDC program included a session to teach developers how to make their apps work with Siri.




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