Apple will revamp Siri to catch up with its Chatbot competitors

Apple’s top software executives decided early last year that Siri, the company’s virtual assistant, needed a brain transplant.

The decision came after executives Craig Federighi and John Giannandrea spent weeks testing OpenAI’s new chatbot, ChatGPT. The product’s use of generative artificial intelligence, capable of writing poetry, creating computer code and answering complex questions, makes Siri look dated, two people familiar with the company’s work said. the company, who were not authorized to speak publicly.

Introduced in 2011 as the original virtual assistant in every iPhone, Siri had for years been limited to individual requests and had never been able to follow a conversation. He often misunderstood the questions. ChatGPT, on the other hand, knew that if someone asked the weather in San Francisco and then responded, “What about New York?” this user wanted another forecast.

The realization that new technology had overtaken Siri sparked the tech giant’s most significant reorganization in more than a decade. Determined to catch up in the tech industry’s AI race, Apple has made generative AI a flagship project — the company’s special internal label that it uses to organize employees around initiatives once a decade.

Apple is expected to showcase its AI work at its annual developers conference on June 10, launching an improved, more conversational and versatile Siri, according to three people familiar with the company’s work, who were not authorized to speak publicly. Siri’s underlying technology will include a new generative AI system that will allow it to chat rather than answer questions one by one.

The Siri update is at the forefront of a broader effort to adopt generative AI across Apple’s business. The company is also increasing the memory in this year’s iPhones to support its new Siri features. And he discussed licensing complementary AI models that power chatbots from several companies, including Google, Cohere and OpenAI.

An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

Apple executives fear new AI technology threatens the company’s dominance in the global smartphone market as it has the potential to become the primary operating system, replacing the iPhone’s iOS software , said two people familiar with the thinking of Apple executives, who were not authorized to speak publicly. The new technology could also create an ecosystem of AI apps, called agents, capable of ordering Ubers or making appointments, undermining Apple’s App Store, which generates around $24 billion. dollars in annual sales.

Apple also fears that if it fails to develop its own AI system, the iPhone will become a “dumb brick” compared to other technologies. Although it’s difficult to know how many people use Siri regularly, the iPhone currently accounts for 85% of global smartphone profits and generates more than $200 billion in sales.

That sense of urgency contributed to Apple’s decision to cancel its other big bet — a $10 billion project to develop a self-driving car — and reassign hundreds of engineers to work on AI.

Apple has also explored creating servers powered by its iPhone and Mac processors, two of these people said. This could help Apple save money and create consistency between the tools used for processes in the cloud and on its devices.

Rather than compete directly with ChatGPT by launching a chatbot that does things like write poetry, the three people familiar with its work said, Apple has focused on making Siri better at handling the tasks it already does, including setting timers, creating calendar appointments, and adding features. items to a grocery list. It would also be able to summarize text messages.

Apple plans to pitch enhanced Siri as more private than competing AI services because it will handle queries on iPhones rather than remotely in data centers. The strategy will also save money. OpenAI spends about 12 cents for each word generated by ChatGPT due to cloud computing costs.

(The New York Times sued OpenAI and its partner Microsoft in December for copyright infringement on news content related to AI systems.)

But Apple runs risks by relying on a smaller AI system hosted on iPhones rather than a larger system stored in a data center. Research has shown that small AI systems may be more likely to make errors, called hallucinations, than larger ones.

“The vision for Siri has always been to have a conversational interface that understands language and context, but it’s a difficult problem,” said Tom Gruber, Siri co-founder who worked at Apple until 2018 “Now that the technology has changed, it should be possible to do a much better job of this. As long as it’s not a one-time effort to respond to anything, they should be able to stay out of trouble.”

Apple has several advantages in the AI ​​race, including more than two billion devices in use worldwide where it can distribute AI products. The company also has a leading semiconductor team that makes sophisticated chips capable of performing AI tasks such as facial recognition.

But over the past decade, Apple has struggled to develop an overall AI strategy, and Siri hasn’t seen major improvements since its introduction. The Assistant’s struggles blunted the appeal of the company’s HomePod smart speaker, as it couldn’t consistently perform simple tasks like responding to a song request.

The Siri team failed to attract the kind of attention and resources that were given to other groups within Apple, said John Burkey, who worked on Siri for two years before founding a generative AI platform, The company’s divisions, such as software and hardware, operate independently of each other and share limited information. But to succeed, AI must be integrated into products.

“It’s not in Apple’s DNA,” Mr. Burkey said. “It’s a blind spot.”

Apple has also struggled to recruit and retain top AI researchers. Over the years, it acquired AI companies run by leaders in the field, but they all left within a few years.

The reasons for their departure vary, but one factor is Apple’s secrecy. The company publishes fewer papers on its AI work than Google, Meta and Microsoft, and doesn’t attend conferences in the same way as its competitors.

“Researchers say, ‘What are my other options?’ Can I return to academia? Can I go to a research institute, somewhere where I can work a little more in the open air?’ said Ruslan Salakhutdinov, a leading AI researcher who left Apple in 2020 to return to Carnegie Mellon University.

In recent months, Apple has increased the number of articles published on AI. But prominent AI researchers have questioned the value of those papers, saying they were more about creating the impression of meaningful work than providing examples of what Apple might market.

Tsu-Jui Fu, an Apple intern and AI doctoral student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, wrote one of Apple’s recent articles on AI. He spent last summer developing a system for editing photos with written commands rather than Photoshop tools. He said Apple supported the project by providing the GPUs needed to train the system, but had no interaction with the AI ​​team working on Apple products.

Although he said he has interviewed for full-time jobs at Adobe and Nvidia, he plans to return to Apple after graduation because he believes he can make a bigger difference there.

“AI products and research are emerging at Apple, but most companies are very mature,” Mr. Fu said in an interview with The Times. “At Apple, I can have more freedom to lead a project instead of just being a member of a team doing something.”

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