Apple and AI

Speaking of Mark Gurman, he has an interesting bit about Apple’s AI efforts in his latest Power On column:

The company has some catching up to do. Apple largely sat on the sidelines when OpenAI’s ChatGPT took off like a rocket last year. It watched as Google and Microsoft Corp. rolled out generative AI versions of their search engines, which spit out convincingly human-like responses to users’ queries. Microsoft also updated its Windows apps with smarter assistants, and Inc. unveiled an AI-enhanced overhaul of Alexa.

All the while, the only noteworthy AI release from Apple was an improved auto-correct system in iOS 17.

I would argue that the improved autocorrect in iOS 17 is a major feature — in my use it’s clearly an improvement, and autocorrect is a feature used every day, in almost every app, by almost every iOS user. It’s one of the most used and most important features in the entire OS. I’d also argue that Apple has done some terrific work with AI features in Photos. The search feature in Photos works really well.

But I think Gurman’s summary does get at an essential truth. If I asked you “Which companies are at the forefront of AI-powered products?”, I doubt you’d put Apple on the list. And AI is proving so useful — and yet is a nascent field — that Apple needs to soon be on that list, lest their products begin to fall behind competitively. “Which companies are best at integrating AI into products?” is going to be like “Which companies are best at creating hardware at scale?” and “Which companies are best at human interface design?”

Gurman continues:

Now, Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook says that Apple has been working on generative AI technology for years. But I can tell you in no uncertain terms that Apple executives were caught off guard by the industry’s sudden AI fever and have been scrambling since late last year to make up for lost time.

“There’s a lot of anxiety about this and it’s considered a pretty big miss internally,” a person with knowledge of the matter told Power On.

As I first reported in July, the company built its own large language model called Ajax and rolled out an internal chatbot dubbed “Apple GPT” to test out the functionality. The critical next step is determining if the technology is up to snuff with the competition and how Apple will actually apply it to its products.

What I have heard from little birdies in Cupertino is not that there was a miss on this already. Apple is almost never at the forefront of stuff like this. They’re a deliberate company. Their goal, as with any new technology, is to integrate it into products in meaningful ways best, not first. That’s why there’s no internal anxiety that they’ve already missed anything related to AI.

The anxiety inside Apple is that many people inside do not believe Apple’s own AI/ML team can deliver, but that the company — if only for privacy reasons — will only use what comes from its own AI/ML team.