Apple’s cautious AI strategy is absolutely right

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(Editor’s note: This column originally appeared on Computerworld Sweden on June 14, 2024.)

Just as everyone expected, and almost demanded, Apple finally started talking about artificial intelligence — in its own way, of course. The big keynote at WWDC on Monday might not have been the AI ​​event many had thought was coming. For example, the deal with Open AI, where Chat GPT will be used as an extension of Apple devices’ own AI capabilities, was negotiated in a matter of minutes.

Apple appears to be approaching AI with caution. Cautious, you might call it, but I actually think this strategy is the right one, and it aligns with what I called for earlier: AI that integrates seamlessly and easily into solutions we already know and use.

Apple Intelligence (of course Apple’s AI has been trademarked) is not a special app, or a special assistant or a “Copilot.” These are small, clever features, built on small, specialized models, sprinkled throughout the software. In Siri, in the photo app, as a writing aid, and so on, all in a seemingly non-intrusive way — an extra function, or help, that is there, if you want it.

The latter is important because it bothers me enormously is when AI is shoved down one’s throat. Just because an AI feature exists, maybe I don’t want to use it? No one but I knows what tasks I’m better at than AI, and it obviously varies from person to person.

For example, I am very good at writing and processing text. I definitely don’t want any AI getting in there (I even turn off the spell check in Word). On the other hand, sitting with transcriptions and translations is boring as hell, so I’m happy to take help there.

I’m a decent hobby photographer and don’t need an AI to make my photos “better” unsolicited. However, it can be fun or effective to take AI help to remove some ugly detail, play with the depth of field, or expose subjects.

I’m also a frequent user of chat, both privately and at work, but I think it feels a bit dirty to click on the suggested answers in Microsoft Teams chat (“Great”, “That sounds good.”) because it feels quite disrespectful to the person I’m communicating with.

BAbove all, I am seriously uninterested in Google’s new “AI Overviews,” which have now been rolled out, starting in the US. The AI ​​function in Google’s search engine takes the liberty of using AI to try to guess what you are looking for — and answer it.

I’m extremely good at Googling; it’s a skill I’ve developed over many years. And when I do research with the help of Google, it’s not one answer I’m looking for, but a balanced assessment that I make based on the information I google, thank you very much. Even if Google’s AI in the future gives “correct” answers instead of suggesting to glue the cheese on pizza, that’s just not what I want to use a search engine for.

So that’s why I think Apple is right here. It is through these kinds of simple, friendly and optional functions that do not require advanced “prompt engineering” that the masses will be introduced to and actually use AI tools. Because even though it might sound like it sometimes, most people don’t use Chat GPT at all.

Now Apple has the luxury, if you call it that, of not having to position itself as an “AI company” as a number of other tech giants want to do, although there has been pressure from investors to start delivering in this area. Apple sells mobile phones (and other hardware, but mainly phones). Therefore, it can be worthwhile to focus more on data protection and privacy, and on introducing features at a pace and in a way that makes mobile phone buyers see value in their presence.

Moreover, Apple isn’t charging extra for it, as most others do. Of course, Apple Intelligence is so far only available on the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max (and Mac computers with M-chip). And, presumably, that sprinkling of AI isn’t so sparkling yet as to warrant an immediate upgrade for most people.

But even if this particular iteration of Apple Intelligence will not become everyone’s everyday AI — anymore than the first iPhone became everyone’s smartphone — I believe, this is the way development will go. AI is fundamentally a commodity, a general-purpose technology.

It’s a feature, not a product.

This column is taken from CS Veckobrev, a personal newsletter with reading tips, link tips and analysis sent directly from Computerworld Sweden‘s editor-in-chief, Marcus Jerräng. Do you also want the newsletter on Fridays? Sign up for a free subscription here.

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