Apple proved that AI is a feature, not a product

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Apple’s otherworldly, flying-saucer headquarters in Cupertino, California, seemed the perfect venue this week for a bold and futuristic redesign of the company’s most prized products. With iPhone sales lagging and rivals gaining ground due to the rise of tools like ChatGPT, Apple introduced its own generative artificial intelligence vision at its Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC).

Apple has been seen as a laggard in terms of generative AI lately. Its offerings at WWDC did not go down well with some critics, who called the WWDC announcements downright boring. But with the company’s focus on infusing existing apps and OS features with what it calls “Apple Intelligence,” the biggest takeaway is that generative AI is a feature, not a product in itself.

The great capabilities demonstrated by ChatGPT have inspired some startups to try to invent fully dedicated AI hardware – such as the Rabbit R1 and the Humane AI Pin – as a means of harnessing generative AI. Unfortunately, using these gadgets in practice has been frustrating and disappointing. In contrast, Apple’s vertical integration of generative AI across so many products and various software is very likely where AI is heading.

Rather than a stand-alone device or experience, Apple has focused on how generative AI can improve apps and OS features in small but meaningful ways. Early adopters have certainly resorted to generative AI programs like ChatGPT to help rework emails, summarize documents, and create illustrations, but that usually means opening another browser window or app, cutting and pasting, and sometimes trying to understand the chatbot’s furious chatter. To be truly useful, generative AI will need to penetrate technologies we already understand and rely on better.

After the WWDC keynote, Apple gave WIRED a demo of what it calls Apple Intelligence, a catchall name for the AI ​​it runs in many apps. The capabilities hardly push the boundaries of generative AI, but they have been thoughtfully integrated and perhaps even limited in ways that will encourage users to trust them more.

A feature called Writing Tools will let iOS and MacOS users rewrite or summarize text, and Image Playground will turn sketches and text prompts into stylized illustrations. The company’s new Zenmoji tool, which uses generative AI to create new emojis from text prompts, could become a surprisingly popular integration, given how often people throw emojis at each other.

Apple is also giving Siri a much-needed upgrade with generative AI that helps the assistant better understand speech including pauses and corrections, remember past chats for better context awareness, and make data stored in apps on the device more useful. Apple said Siri will use App Intents, a framework for developers that can be used to perform tasks that involve opening and operating apps. For example, when asked “show me photos of my cat chasing a toy”, a language model will parse the command and then use the framework to access the photos.

Apple’s generative AI will mostly run locally on its devices, though the company has developed a technology called Private Cloud Compute to safely send queries to the cloud when needed. Running AI on the device means it will be less capable than the latest cloud-based chatbots. But that may be a feature rather than a bug, since it also means a program like Siri is less likely to overextend itself and mess things up. Apple has been very clever in handing its most challenging queries over to OpenAI’s ChatGPT, with the user’s permission.

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