Employees began betting five minutes into Google I/O’s conference in May on the number of times “AI” was mentioned onstage. Sundar Pichai was threatening to give a cattle prod if any presenter didn’t mention it at least one time. We stopped betting in the end and created a supercut. The book was a bit different when it came to WWDC. Would Apple mention “AI ” even once ? As it turns out, not once.
It was always referred to as “machine-learning” — which is a much more accurate and sedate description. Many in the industry will agree that “artificial Intelligence” is a term to be avoided. It’s vague and overdetermined. It’s more like a sci-fi story than a real tech. In a interview, Ted Chiang summed it up well: What is artificial intelligence? “A poor choice in 1954.”
Apple focuses on AI functionality
Apple’s AI aversion is nothing new. Apple has been wary of AI as a techno-magical force for many years. Apple prefers to emphasize the benefits of machine learning and highlight its functionality, like the customer-pleasing business it is. Tim Cook said in a recent interview with Good Morning America, “We integrate it into our product [but] people do not necessarily think of it as AI.”
What does it look like? Here are some of the machine-learning features that were mentioned in this year’s WWDC and spread across Apple’s ecosystem.
- Improved autocorrection in iOS 17 powered by machine learning on the device;
- AirPods now have a Personalized Volume feature that “uses machine-learning to understand listening preferences and environmental conditions”;
- Smart Stack is an improved Smart Stack for watchOS, which “uses machine-learning to show relevant information at the right time”;
- A new iPad lockscreen that uses “machine-learning models to synthesize extra frames” in order to animate live photos;
- The new Journal app uses “on-device Machine Learning” to curate “intelligently” curated prompts;
- The “advanced machine learning techniques” were used to generate 3D avatars on the Vision Pro for video calls.
Apple’s Vision Pro headsets have been able to use new 3D avatars created by AI. This was one of the most ambitious AI use cases at WWDC.
The 3D avatars are the only standout feature. Other than that, all other features are rote and not revolutionary. When compared to the Vision Pro launch, this strategy appears not only conservative, but also timid, and possibly even unwise. Apple is missing out on recent AI advances.
It’s a bit of both yes and no. But, it’s useful to compare its approach to that of its closest tech rivals, including Google, Microsoft, Meta, and others.
Meta is the least active of this trio. Meta is working on AI tools, like Mark Zuckerberg’s mysterious personas and AI powered advertising. It’s also happy to promote its often leading industry research. But a major push into the metaverse left less room for AI. Google and Microsoft, on the other hand, have invested heavily. Google’s I/O conference saw the announcement of a family of AI languages, assistant features for Docs and Gmail, and AI experiments. Microsoft is also reworking its search engine Bing and integrating AI into Office. It has also reinvented its failed digital assistant Cortana to become the AI powered Copilot. They are grabbing the AI moment and squeezing hard to get money out of it.
Should Apple do the exact same thing? Could it? Well, I would argue that it doesn’t require — or at the least, not in the same way as its competitors. Apple’s company is built around hardware, the iPhone in particular and its ecosystem. Apple is not under any pressure to reinvent search, like Google, or to improve its productivity software, like Microsoft. It only needs to keep selling phones and does so by making iOS as friendly and intuitive as possible. (Until there is a new hardware to dominate which could or might not emerge with the Vision Pro.
Apple’s failure to embrace AI is only in one area. That’s Siri. Apple’s digital assistant is a joke and has been for many years. Although Apple invented the digital assistant for consumers, it’s obvious that it’s not a priority. This year’s WWDC saw the biggest change in Siri’s trigger phrase. It was shorten to “Siri” from “Hey Siri.” Apple’s most significant announcement at WWDC was to shorten the wake word of a product that we ignore by just three letters.
Of course, there are reasons to be cautious. Cook said in his GMA Interview that software like ChatGPT can cause a variety of issues, from misinformation to bias. Apple, a company that is obsessed with image, would be especially wary of the headlines generated by Bing and Bard. How long will the company be able to sit on the sidelines before it is forced to act? Will a VR push distract the company from reaping AI rewards that are comparatively achievable? We’ll need to wait for the next WWDC. Start counting the mentions of “machine-learning.”