How Apple is playing catch-up on integrating genAI into its products


Apple has been tardy in developing and announcing its plans for using generative AI (genAI), but so what? Apple has been late before in jumping on important tech trends and it has caught up. The arrival of genAI tools and platforms over the past 18 months has been the biggest shift in tech since the advent of cloud computing, and Apple’s Siri is a pathetic example of a virtual assistant in desperate need of a new brain.

Those two realities have led to a lot of criticism by analysts and the media in recent months about Apple’s non-existent AI strategy, and the company’s need to scramble to catch up. (And that was before this week’s big announcements from Microsoft.)

Recent leaks about what the company is up to should ease the Apple genAI angst in the marketplace. The New York Times, for example, reported that Apple will revamp Siri to catch up to its chatbot competitors. And according to Bloomberg, the iPhone maker will reportedly ink a licensing deal with OpenAI for ChatGPT to revitalize its voice assistant.

Apple has hinted at AI-related announcements coming at its annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) on June 10. Much depends on the specifics. According to the Times, Apple has discussed “licensing complementary AI models that power chatbots from several companies, including Google, Cohere, and OpenAI.” This may be the most significant point for the success of Apple’s AI offerings. Developing Large Language Models (LLMs) that power chatbots is specific to each product, compute intensive, and requires considerable time and effort.

The reality is that Apple is its own ecosystem, and the danger for the company in being late with AI is more about Wall Street’s fleeting perceptions and temporary company valuation than what its customers think. Apple’s stock fell in late April and early May as the company was hit with negative publicity about being out to lunch on AI. But after a recent Apple stock buy-back and the expectation that Apple will announce its plans soon, Apple’s stock is back up.

Aspects of Apple’s probable AI plan

Apple’s AI strategy is beginning to emerge. Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman confirmed the recent rumors:  the company plans to significantly upgrade Siri with AI. (Using OpenAI’s ChatGPT is almost certainly a stopgap measure; Apple will eventually need to fully develop its own LLM and chatbot and fully integrate it with its products.)

Apple also intends to add what Gurman described as “proactive intelligence” features, such as automatic summaries of iPhone notifications, quick synopses of news articles, transcribed voice memos, and improved existing features such as those that automatically populate your calendar. Gurman also reported that Apple might launch genAI-powered editing tools similar to those found on Google’s Pixel and Samsung’s Galaxy S smartphones. And the company is reportedly eyeing high-end AI-enabled chips for its data centers to enable cloud-based genAI features.

Licensing ChatGPT isn’t going to wow anybody with the latest genAI features from OpenAI or Google. Apple will pay that price, at least temporarily. It’s unclear at the moment what else could emerge from any partnership between Apple and OpenAI — there are rumors OpenAI might integrate ChatGPT natively on the iPhone — but the details should become clear at WWDC. 

Finally, according to VentureBeat, Apple researchers have developed a new artificial intelligence system that can “understand ambiguous references to on-screen entities as well as conversational and background context, enabling more natural interactions with voice assistants.”

Called ReALM (Reference Resolution As Language Modeling), it leverages LLMs to handle the complex task of converting reference resolution — including references to visual elements on a screen — into a pure language-modeling problem, VentureBeat reported. This lets ReALM achieve substantial performance gains over existing methods.

Brass tacks

There can be no doubt that the Apple allowed itself to fall behind in the breakneck race for AI supremacy. But the company appears to be moving to rectify that misstep and has taken the only recourse left — licensing a well-regarded chatbot and LLM from another company while it continues to develop an internal approach. This will let Apple dramatically  improve Siri, which hasn’t had a significant upgrade since its introduction in 2011. That’s the burning need.

We’ll have to wait another three weeks or so to get the details of Apple’s AI plans.  But it would be a mistake to score Apple as an AI loser at this point. We’re still just getting started with AI. So is Apple.

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