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Smarter Siri: Virtual assistant makeover as Apple jumps into AI race

Tech giant Apple has jumped into the race to bring generative artificial intelligence to the masses during its World Wide Developers Conference, unleashing an onslaught of features designed to soup up the iPhone, iPad and Mac.

Jun 11, 2024, updated Jun 11, 2024
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference. EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO

Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the company's Worldwide Developers Conference. EPA/JOHN G. MABANGLO

And in a move befitting a company known for its marketing prowess, the AI technology coming as part of free software updates later in 2024, is being billed as “Apple Intelligence”.

Even as it tried to put its own stamp on the hottest area of technology, Apple tacitly acknowledged it needed help to catch up with companies like Microsoft and Google, who have emerged as the early leaders in the AI field.

Apple is leaning on ChatGPT, made by the San Francisco startup OpenAI, to help make its often-bumbling virtual assistant Siri smarter and more helpful.

“All of this goes beyond artificial intelligence, it’s personal intelligence, and it is the next big step for Apple,” CEO Tim Cook said.

Siri’s gateway to ChatGPT will be free to all iPhone users and made available on other Apple products once the option is baked into the next generation of Apple’s operating systems.

ChatGPT subscribers are supposed to be able to easily sync their existing accounts when using the iPhone, and should get more advanced features than free users would.

To herald the alliance with Apple, OpenAI CEO Sam Altman sat in the front row of the packed conference, which included developers attending from more than 60 countries worldwide.

“Think you will really like it,” Altman predicted in a post about their partnership with Apple.

Beyond giving Siri the ability to tap into ChatGPT’s knowledge base. Apple is giving its 13-year-old virtual assistant an extensive makeover designed to make it more personable and versatile, even as it currently fields about 1.5 billion queries a day.

When Apple releases free updates to the software powering the iPhone and its other products this northern autumn, Siri will signal its presence with flashing lights along the edges of the display screen, and be able to handle hundreds of more tasks – including chores that may require tapping into third-party devices – than it can now, based on Monday’s presentations.

The AI-packed updates coming to the next versions of Apple software are meant to enable the billions of people who use its devices to get more done in less time, while also giving them access to creative tools that could liven things up.

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For instance, Apple will deploy AI to allow people to create emojis, dubbed “Genmojis” on the fly to fit the vibe they are trying to convey.

Monday’s showcase seemed aimed at allaying concerns Apple might be losing its edge during the advent of AI technology that is expected to be as revolutionary as the 2007 invention of the Phone.

Both Google and Samsung have already released smartphone models touting AI features as their main attractions while Apple has been stuck in an uncharacteristically extended slump in the company’s sales.

Bringing more AI to the iPhone will likely raise privacy concerns, a topic that Apple has gone to great lengths to assure its loyal customers it can be trusted not to peer too deeply into their personal lives.

Apple did talk extensively on Monday about its efforts to build strong privacy protections and controls around its AI technology.

One way Apple is trying to convince consumers that the iPhone won’t be used to spy on them is harnessing its chip technology so most of its AI-powered features are handled on the device itself instead of at remote data centres, often called “the cloud”.

Going down this route would also help protect Apple’s profit margins because AI processing through the cloud is far more expensive than when it is run solely on a device.

Apple’s AI “will be aware of your personal data without collecting your personal data”, said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering.

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