For better or worse, Apple is avoiding the hype train of artificial intelligence

Five minutes from the Google I/O conference in May, edge The staff began betting on the number of times “artificial intelligence” was mentioned on stage. It seems like every presenter had to say it at least once or get stuck with a flick of cattle by Sundar Pichai. (Eventually, we stopped betting and made a file Super cut.) Watching WWDC, the book was going the other way: would anyone mention Apple’s “AI” Absolutely? It turns out, no, not once.

Technology was referenced, of course, but always in the form of “machine learning” — a more sober and technically accurate description. As many in the same field will tell you, “artificial intelligence” is a much-hated term: imprecise and overly specific, reminiscent more of science fiction mythology than of real, concrete technology. Author Ted Chiang put it well in a recent interview: What is AI? “Poor choice of words in 1954.”

Apple prefers to focus on the functionality provided by artificial intelligence

Apple’s AI sensitivity is nothing new. The company has long been institutionally wary of “artificial intelligence” as a force of magical technical effectiveness. Instead, he prefers to focus on the machine learning function, highlighting the benefits it brings to users like a company that satisfies customers. As Tim Cook said in an interview with Good morning America Today, we’re incorporating it into our products [but] People don’t necessarily think of it as AI.”

And what does this look like? Well, here are some of the machine learning-powered features mentioned at this year’s WWDC, spread across the Apple ecosystem:

  • better autocorrect in iOS 17 “powered by on-device machine learning”;
  • a custom volume feature for AirPods that “uses machine learning to understand environmental conditions and listening preferences”;
  • an improved Smart Stack on watchOS that “uses machine learning to show you relevant information when you need it”;
  • a new lock screen for the iPad that animates Live Photos using “machine learning models to tune additional frames”;
  • “intelligently curated” prompt messages in the new Journal app using “on-device machine learning”;
  • and 3D Vision Pro video call avatars created with Advanced ML Technologies

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Aside from the 3D avatars, these are all fairly rote: welcome but a far cry from world-changing features. Indeed, when placed next to the massive swing of fences that marks the launch of the Vision Pro, the strategy seems not only conservative, but also timid and perhaps unwise. Given recent advances in artificial intelligence, the question must be asked: Is Apple missing out?

The answer to this is “a little yes and a little no.” But it’s worth comparing the company’s approach first with that of its closest tech competitors: Google, Microsoft, and Meta.

Of this trio, Meta is the quietest. Sure, it works on AI tools (like Mark Zuckerberg’s obscure “characters” and AI-powered advertising) and is happy to announce its industry-leading research often, but a big push in the metaverse has left even less room for AI. By contrast, Google and Microsoft have entered. At I/O, Google announced a full suite of AI language models along with new Assistant features in Docs and Gmail, and experiences like an AI notebook. At the same time, Microsoft is quickly overhauling the Bing search engine, stuffing AI into every corner of Office, and reinventing its failed Cortana digital assistant as the new AI-powered Copilot. These are companies that seize the moment of artificial intelligence, squeeze it hard, and hope to lose a lot of money.

So should Apple do the same? can she? Well, I would argue that it doesn’t Need To — or at least, not to the same degree as its competitors. Apple is a company built on hardware, on the iPhone and its ecosystem in particular. There is no pressure on them to reinvent search like Google or improve productivity software like Microsoft. All she needs is to keep selling phones, and she does that by making iOS as intuitive and welcoming as possible. (Until, of course, there’s a new hardware platform to master, which may or may not appear with the Vision Pro.)

There’s just one area, I think, that Apple is missing out on by not embracing AI. This is Siri. The company’s digital assistant has been a laughing stock for years, and even though Apple invented the digital assistant as a consumer market, it’s clearly no longer a priority for the company. The biggest news for Siri at this year’s WWDC was that its launch phrase was shortened from “Hey Siri” to “Siri.” That’s it. In a world where artificial intelligence language models vastly improve computers’ ability to parse language and open up new possibilities in areas like education and health, Apple’s biggest announcement was making the wake-up word for a product most of us ignore just three letters shorter.

There is reason to be careful, of course. As mentioned by Cook in his book GMA Interview, there are all kinds of problems associated with a program like ChatGPT, from bias to misinformation. And an image-obsessed company like Apple will be especially wary of the headlines generated from the launch of Bing and Bard. But how long can the company remain on the sidelines? And will the rush into virtual reality distract him from reaping the relatively achievable rewards of AI? We’ll have to wait until the next WWDC. And start counting your Machine Learning signals.

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