Later this month, at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple is rumoured to unveil not just the biggest news of the year, but the biggest news of the decade. Press coverage of the impending event has discussed growing competition from the likes of Google, Microsoft, and, most recently, OpenAI. The tech press is excited to see exactly what kind of advances Apple has up its sleeve, but it’s a story of much wider interest: my parents, who are not exactly early adopters, even asked to see my demo of the new Dall-E image-generating system because they were curious about what Apple has been doing in artificial intelligence. My father, who still loves his old iPhone 8, especially its Touch ID feature, asked me excitedly: is the new Face ID amazing?


Ahead of the WWDC, as everyone tries to guess what new ‘Apple Intelligence’ features it will announce, one of the main draws for those who are drawn to Apple’s products isn’t the flashy showcasing of technology in its own sake. It’s the subtlety of integration into the product. Apple’s rumoured shift away from the flashiness of AI ‘miracles’ and towards making AI just slightly better at everyday apps and services is a sign that they’re paying attention. The truly interesting direction that AI is taking is not in the ability to create new pictures, or to do complex searches. It’s in quietly making ordinary things work slightly better. You often won’t even be able to tell that those things are getting better.


What is clear so far is that, in contrast with Meta (now called Meta) and Google, Apple is likely to integrate its new-generation AI in a user-centric manner. As reported on by Bloomberg, such integration will require users’ consent for many new AI features. Apple has also reportedly promised to limit cloud data processing to what’s strictly necessary. These are important steps towards building an ethical AI.


And consider AI features as easy-to-use as those that enable your phone to search for Wi-Fi or that prompt your go-to music app to generate suggested playlists. Since 2017, Apple’s approach has seemed to centre on embedding AI into the very fabric of apps – think ‘day beat’ summaries of notifications and automatic ‘smart’ autocorrect, option to have articles read back to you while scrolling in Safari and providing transcriptions of voice notes, for example. Each enhancement represents a subtle, nondemanding attempt to make life less self-evidently difficult, with technology moving toward a silent co-working relationship, in which the machine creates value, seems to anticipate needs, but does not require anything in return.


The history of AI in consumer hardware also offers a lesson in the difficulty of training users to adopt new behaviours. Apple has historically circumvented this resistance by bringing AI through the back door, to where users are already: in the apps and functions they use every day. Siri, for instance, just works; you can ask it questions and get answers without having to change any of your old habits. The principle of unobtrusively excellent tech is expected to guide the forthcoming AI features. If all goes to plan, they will be clever enough to be innovative but still mundanely useful.


The real novelty of Apple AI, however, is that it will probably be deeply useful without being all that noticeable. Features like these probably won’t set anyone’s world on fire the way many of the more obvious applications of current AI will. But that’s the whole point. These features will be valuable not because they trigger a new wave of attention, but because they stick around and make our lives better, without really drawing attention to themselves. What Apple’s push on this front reveals is a real clarity about where ‘computers’ should go in the future. They should become like humans. We should not become like computers.


While other technology companies tend to pride themselves on devices and features, Apple’s evolution within the technology space has always been about experiences – about ways of doing things and engaging with the world and with ourselves that strike a deeply resonant chord with us. We’ll know more in the coming days following WWC’s official announcements – but what we hope for are not just new things, but new iterations on this very notion of fundamental human experience that has always made Apple uniquely capable of making what might otherwise be new, strange technologies feel old, familiar, and truly ours.


At its most basic, Apple’s vision of itself as a company is one that uses technology to improve human experiences. From the original iPhone to Siri, and from a sleek, intuitive design to its often-effective attempts to protect user privacy, its ethos has been to serve human needs with a connective tissue of simple, elegant, unobtrusive integration. Its coming, as-yet-unannounced forays into the future of AI are likely to continue along this path, featuring small features that would materially improve human interactions through intuitive, thoughtful and unobtrusive enhancements. Apple talks plenty of ethics regarding its technology, and consistently prioritises user choice and consent. This is the company that brought us the iPod: it didn’t create the idea of portable digital music players, but it made the damn thing really easy to use. It didn’t create the market for smartphones, but it made the damn thing feel good, for the most part, and continually refines the experience.

In short, with Apple’s next presentation beckoning like a technological Rapture (the invite design, of course, evokes a descending beam of light), we would do well to remember that it’s not when tech behaves like magic that it’s most successful, but when our magic-infused lives are transformed by technology so unobtrusively brilliant that we don’t even see it. If Apple follows through on its promised path of designing AI that, according to the invite, is ‘designed by Apple, not made by Google’, the emphasis on embedding AI in the routine of our lives in ways that are humdrum rather than high-tech creates a sense of technology-for-humanity vision that’s stronger, troublingly enough, than the idea that humans are now machines.

Jun 09, 2024
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