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How Apple’s deal with OpenAI could change your iPhone

This is i on Science, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

Hello and welcome back to i‘s science and tech newsletter. Our series of guest newsletters that try to untangle big issues affecting the twinned worlds of science and technology continue once more. I’m Chris Stokel-Walker, a freelance journalist and regular contributor to i.

This week, we’re looking at Apple’s announcements this week of new products – and an overhaul for an old favourite: the iPhone.

The AI phone?

Every year, Apple convenes what it calls its Worldwide Developers Conference, or WWDC, at its California headquarters. The event is a chance for the tech company, and makers of the iPhone, to unveil to the world what it has been working on for the previous 12 months.

Tech companies hold conferences most weeks of the year, but Apple’s is always a landmark occasion because of the position the firm has in the collective consciousness – and because it helps to set the trends for the wider tech world. And on Monday, the announcements Apple made help explain why WWDC is such a stalwart in tech reporters’ calendar.

After more than a year of opting out of the generative AI revolution, at this year’s WWDC Apple leapt headlong into it – in turn shaping it in its own image, and changing your iPhone forever.

At the core of Apple’s announcements was what it called “Apple Intelligence” – an AI-powered system that would allow users to interact with and use their devices more easily. It’s perhaps easiest to think of it as an additional AI layer on top of every interaction with your iPhone, including apps, that will seek to assist you where it can. Apple Intelligence also includes the ability for users to look at and interact with ChatGPT, which would be built into the phone more innately.

A new era

One of the key things users are most likely to notice is a shift in how Siri, the voice activated assistant on iOS, operates. For years since Siri was introduced to Apple devices in 2011, it’s been a tool that a lot of users shy away from using – at least in public.

The computerised voice assistant can be an awkward, interrupting conversational counterpart, sluggish to provide answers and sometimes getting things wrong.

But Apple’s announcement of a revolution when it comes to how Siri works, integrating more up-to-date AI, could transform its perception. “Siri’s long-awaited redesign coupled with Apple Intelligence is a promising first step in delivering truly personal and contextual experiences through a more private and multimodal interface,” said Thomas Husson, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

There were some things that made the AI adoption promoted by Apple CEO Tim Cook unique to his company, however. One of the major concerns that some users have about the AI revolution is the amount of data users are expected to give up to companies and permit to be transmitted to remote data servers, where the questions they ask are answered.

Apple had an answer to that which it calls Private Cloud Compute. The idea is that the data you ask your generative AI assistants won’t be visible to anyone – including Apple. It’s a typically strong user-security approach from a company that makes extensive checks of any app before it is listed on its App Store.

Answering critics

“Apple needed to deliver an AI story, and Apple Intelligence should help placate nervous investors and reassure them that Apple is keeping pace with its rivals,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst and chief marketing officer at analysts CCS Insight. “The partnership with ChatGPT is a major development which beefs up Apple’s AI offerings, and new features like a significantly improved Siri will be welcome to users.”

Yet there are significant changes in what Apple announced that nod to a broader change. Wood said “the partnership with OpenAI for ChatGPT marks a new direction for Apple which has previously been reluctant to partner for core technology”.

But the change will be significant nonetheless. There are 2.2 billion iOS devices that could be affected by the change, reckons Dan Ives, managing director and senior equity research analyst at Wedbush Securities. “Apple is taking the right path to implement AI across its ecosystem while laying out the foundation for the company’s multi-year AI strategy,” he said.

After waiting in the wings, Apple has decided to fully embrace the AI revolution – and will affect the vast numbers of us who have iPhones in our pockets or iPads sitting on our kitchen tables. But beyond that, Apple’s decision to adopt AI has wider ramifications. The company is seen as a trendsetter, and an arbiter of what is cool. While it’s taken a little while to warm up to the potential of AI, getting the Apple stamp of approval means it’s going to be near unavoidable.

And given only 2 per cent of Brits have used generative AI tools, according to a recent survey, and more than half the phones in Brits’ pockets are iPhones, a lot of people are about to encounter a technology they’ve previously known very little about.

Other things I’ve written recently

I’ve written the tale of two political campaigns. One involves Donald Trump’s dominance of TikTok after he joined the app earlier this month – and how that shows his dominance when it comes to all social media. The other looks a little closer to home, at the UK election campaign, and why – despite the headlines – this is not the TikTok election.

Science link of the week

Not only did this excellent New Scientist story on how to satisfy salt cravings without harming your health convince me to put down the salt shaker, but as someone who was recently told he had high blood pressure by a doctor, it convinced me to buy potassium tablets to try and tamp down my blood pressure.

This is i on Science, a subscriber-only newsletter from i. If you’d like to get this direct to your inbox, every single week, you can sign up here.

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