If last week’s Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) didn’t collapse, almost every conversation in technology seems to revolve around AI and chatbots. In recent days, Microsoft-supported OpenAI has released a new language model called GPT-4. Competitor Anthropic has released the Claude chatbot. Google said it is integrating AI into its Workspace tools like Gmail and Docs. Microsoft Bing has drawn attention to itself with a chatbot-powered search. The only name missing from the action? Apple.
Last month, the Cupertino-based company held an internal event that focused on AI and large language models. According to a report from The New York Times, many teams, including those working on Siri, regularly test “language-generating concepts.” Separately, 9to5Mac reported that Apple has introduced a new framework for “Siri Natural Language Generation” in tvOS 16.4.
People have complained that Siri didn’t understand questions (including mine) for a long time. Siri (and other assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant) have failed to understand different accents and phonetics of people living in different parts of the world, even if they speak the same language.
The newfound prominence of ChatGPT and text-based search makes it easier for people to interact with different AI models. But currently, the only way to chat with Apple’s AI assistant Siri is to enable a feature under accessibility settings.
In an interview with NYT, former Apple engineer John Burke, who worked on Siri, said Apple’s assistant has been slow to evolve because of “clumsy code,” making it more difficult to make even basic feature updates. He also said that Siri had a big database stack with lots and lots of words. So when engineers needed to add features or sentences, the database had to be rebuilt — a process reportedly taking up to six weeks.
The NYT report did not specify whether Apple is building its own language models or looking to adopt an existing model. But like Google and Microsoft, the Tim Cook-led company wouldn’t limit itself to offering a Siri-powered chatbot. Since Apple has long prided itself on being an ally of artists and creators, it would be expected to apply advances in language models to those areas.
The company has been using AI-powered features for a while, even if they aren’t obvious at first. This includes better suggestions on the keyboard, processing in photography, mask unlocking with Face ID, system-wide separation of objects from the background, hand washing and crash detection on Apple Watch, and most recently, karaoke feature on Apple Music. But none of them may be in-the-face like chatbots.
Apple has generally been quiet about its AI efforts. But in January, the company started a program that offers authors AI-powered storytelling services to convert their books into audiobooks. This indicated that the iPhone maker is already thinking about use cases for generative AI. I won’t be surprised if we hear more about the company’s efforts in these areas at the Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in a few months.