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Even Apple cannot explain why we need AI in our lives

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Whenever a new technology comes along, the world has traditionally looked to Apple to know what to do with it. Under Steve Jobs, the company was renowned for converting groundbreaking technologies into the next must-have device or service.

Not any more. This week’s hotly anticipated unveiling of Apple Intelligence — Apple’s audacious attempt to stamp its own brand on to generative artificial intelligence — was an uneven and unoriginal demonstration that seemed uncharacteristically derivative.

There is little sense that Apple has edited down the possibilities of generative AI to prioritise the truly useful — the quality that most distinguished the company under Jobs. It may have eased worries that Apple has fallen badly behind in a key technology, but it leaves the question of who will shape the AI future wide open.

The very versatility of generative AI feeds uncertainty about its likely impact. Will it usher in a more natural way of interacting with computers? Will it be felt mainly as a set of gee-whizz new features that add bells and whistles to the apps we use every day? Or, like OpenAI’s chatbot ChatGPT, will its most important effects be on the way we find information and navigate the broader digital world?

The AI that Apple showed off this week tried to be all of these things. The risk is that, in rushing to make up for lost time, it will not do any of them particularly well.

Start with the gee-whizz features. These were sprinkled liberally through Apple’s presentation and offer to give users ways to create personalised images and emojis and add automated writing prompts.

But features like these have become familiar in AI services from other companies. It seemed to be an exercise in box-checking. Google has a photo-editing tool that lets you erase things from pictures? We can do that. Microsoft’s new Recall feature keeps track of everything you’ve done on your device so you can find things again easily? Yes, we can do that, too.

Much will depend on how well Apple’s in-house AI models work — an important question, given the challenges such systems have in returning accurate results. But throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks has never been the Apple way.

When it comes to an AI that can answer questions about the wider world, meanwhile, Apple’s in-house technology is far behind. So this week it announced a deal with OpenAI to bring ChatGPT to its devices, offering users the chance to get answers free of charge.

Yet what might have sounded like a blockbuster alliance looked halfhearted. iPhone users will have to ask a question of Apple’s digital assistant, Siri, which will then ask for permission to put the same question to ChatGPT — hardly the “seamless integration” Apple likes to talk about.

Nor was it clear how this relationship will work in the longer term. Generating AI answers is expensive, and most tech observers expect Apple to eventually charge users for ChatGPT if the feature takes off.

The arrangement also underlines the uncomfortable fact that Apple’s in-house AI is inferior. If the most advanced AI systems really do reach human-level intelligence then they could well become the core tech platforms on which future apps depend. For Apple, catching up will be key.

The possibility that AI will bring a more natural way to handle our everyday digital activities, is where Apple has the best chance to make an impact in the short term. It promises a souped-up Siri that will be able to pick through information in your email, messages and various apps to answer questions or take actions on your behalf.

While this idea sounds deceptively simple, pulling it off will be hard. AI systems are probabilistic, meaning they make their best guess at returning the right answer. Apple has yet to show how well the new Siri works.

This raises broader questions about the future of technology. If Siri becomes the on-ramp to everything you do on an iPhone, reducing the need to open apps, what does that do to the many developers whose businesses depend on building direct relationships with Apple’s users?

This is the same upheaval threatened by the latest AI feature in Google’s search engine, which aims to summarise information plucked from other websites. If AI systems run by big tech companies can filter the digital world in this way — and if they can use that information to start taking actions on our behalf — then what future is there for all the websites, apps and other software tools that we currently rely on?

Relief that Apple is finally bringing generative AI to its devices added more than $260bn to its stock market value this week. Over the next few years, Apple AI could fuel a massive hardware upgrade cycle. It will only work on a very small number of existing devices, so most customers will have to buy a new and more powerful iPhone, iPad or Mac to see Apple Intelligence.

But it doesn’t mean Apple has yet found the key that will unlock the full potential of generative AI.

Originally Appeared Here

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