Apple is quietly working on AI tools that could challenge those of OpenAI Inc, Alphabet Inc's Google, and others. Source: AFP

Apple is quietly working on AI tools that could challenge those of OpenAI Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google, and others. (Photo by Josh Edelson / AFP)

Is Apple joining the AI chatbot race with ‘Apple GPT’?

  • Apple is quietly working on AI tools that could challenge those of OpenAI Inc and others.
  • The iPhone maker doesn’t yet have a clear strategy for releasing the technology to consumers.
  • Tim Cook has indicated that Apple will be adding AI to more of its products on a “very thoughtful basis.”

While other tech giants were quick to jump on the generative AI bandwagon following OpenAI’s sensational ChatGPT launch in November 2022, Apple has been conspicuously absent from the frenzy. It wasn’t until Apple’s annual developer’s conference, WWDC, that the company subtly touted how much work it’s doing in state-of-the-art AI and machine learning.

For starters, Apple rarely talks about “artificial intelligence” — it prefers the more academic phrase “machine learning” or simply talks about the features the technology enables. For example, without mention of AI at the annual developer’s conference , an improvement to AirPods Pro was announced: a feature that automatically turns off noise cancellation when the user has a conversation.

Although Apple didn’t frame it as a machine learning feature, the solution is based on AI models. On top of that, the company has made AI headway in other areas, including improvements to photos and iPhone searches. There’s also a smarter version of auto-correct coming to its mobile devices this year.

Apple mentioned several other new features that used the company’s skill in neural networks, such as the ability to identify fields to fill out in a PDF. The Photos app will also be able to differentiate between your dog and other dogs, automatically recognizing your pup the same way it identifies people who frequently appear in your pictures. 

Apple could make a major AI announcement in 2024. Source: Twitter

Apple could make a major AI announcement in 2024. Source: Twitter

However, its main AI product, the Siri voice assistant, has stagnated in recent years. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said during a conference call in May, Apple will be adding AI to more of its products, he said, but on a “very thoughtful basis.”

Cook also said that though the technology has potential, a “number of issues still need to be sorted.” However, Apple wants AI models on its devices, unlike its rivals, who build bigger models with server farms, supercomputers, and terabytes of data. 

“The new autocorrect feature is imposing because it’s running on the iPhone, while models like ChatGPT require hundreds of expensive GPUs working in tandem,” a report by CNBC indicated.

Apple GPT – an AI chatbot in iPhones soon?

Apple's Siri: Source: Shutterstock

Apple has been so quiet about its AI progress that it has been accused of falling behind. While ChatGPT can write you an essay, Siri can set your morning alarm and not much else. But hints indicate Apple is pushing forward with AI in small ways.

Albeit the incrementalistic approach, it nonetheless still might be the future of where this technology is headed. Indeed, according to people who know the efforts, the iPhone maker has built its framework to create large language models — the AI-based systems at the heart of new offerings like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard.

“With that foundation, known as “Ajax,” Apple also has created a chatbot service that some engineers call ‘Apple GPT,'” according to a report by Bloomberg. Perhaps, behind the scenes, Apple has grown concerned about missing a potentially paramount shift in how devices operate. “And Apple’s devices, which produced revenue of nearly US$320 billion in the last fiscal year, could suffer if the company doesn’t keep up with AI advances,”  the report stated.

Apparently, in recent months, the AI push has become a significant effort for Apple, with several teams collaborating on the project, the people told Bloomberg. The work includes trying to address potential privacy concerns related to the technology. For context, on-device AI bypasses many data privacy issues that cloud-based AI faces, and Apple needs to collect less data when the model can be run on a phone.

It also ties in closely with Apple’s control of its hardware stack, down to its silicon chips. Apple packs new AI circuits and GPUs into its chips every year, and its control of the overall architecture allows it to adapt to changes and new techniques. “That’s why Apple began laying the foundation for AI services with the Ajax framework, as well as a ChatGPT-like tool for use internally,” Bloomberg said.

What exactly is the status of “Apple GPT”?

Simply put, Apple is developing new AI tools but still needs to figure out how to commercialize them. Ajax was first created last year to unify machine learning development at Apple, according to the people familiar with the effort. Then a tiny engineering team made the chatbot app as an experiment at the end of last year. 

“Its rollout within Apple was initially halted over security concerns about generative AI but has since been extended to more employees. Still, the system requires special approval for access. There’s also a significant caveat: Any output from it can’t be used to develop features bound for customers,” Bloomberg said, according to sources.

Apple employees indicated the tool replicates Bard, ChatGPT, and Bing AI and doesn’t include novel features or technology. The system is accessible as a web application and has a stripped-down design not meant for public consumption.” As such, Apple has no current plans to release it to consumers, though it is actively working to improve its underlying models,” Bloomberg said.

The conclusion, for now, lies in the fact that beyond the state of the technology, Apple is still trying to determine the consumer angle for generative AI. While the company doesn’t yet have a concrete plan, Bloomberg said people familiar with the work believe Apple aims to make a significant AI-related announcement next year.