Apple is cleverly rebutting one of its harshest criticisms

Tim Cook AppleStephen Lam/Getty ImagesApple CEO Tim Cook

Over the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of anxiety over Apple’s ability to compete in artificial intelligence — the mega-hot space that companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft see as the next big thing.

At today’s WWDC conference, Apple CEO Tim Cook and the rest of the presenters pulled off a neat trick: Totally and utterly rebutting that claim, without ever bringing it up once.

The message is clear, if you read between the lines. Apple is signalling that artificial intelligence is the future, but that its belief on user experience trumps everything else. It’s a very Apple-like approach.

For instance, the iPhone is getting voicemail transcription with the next iOS update, due in the fall. That sounds straightforward, but it requires some heavy-duty speech recognition juice behind the scenes to do it justice. Recognising real, actual human speech is different than the stilted way you talk to Siri and her ilk today, and much more difficult.

Similarly, the souped-up Apple Photos coming in the next version can recognise people’s faces and sort them by groups, so you can see photos bunched up by family member. That’s a hallmark feature of Google Photos, hailed as a pioneering app in artificial intelligence when it first launched last year.

And Siri intelligence is coming to the iPhone keyboard, so it can make intelligent recommendations based on the text message conversation you’re having. If someone asks you for a phone number, just as an example, the Siri-powered keyboard will suggest that you send the appropriate entry from your contacts. Or if you’re bilingual, it will switch to the correct keyboard.

WWDC2016AppleSome of the Siri intelligence coming to the iPhone keyboard.

The ability to read a conversation and glean the context in real time is a huge challenge for artificial intelligence, and one that Facebook has worked really hard at solving.

Ultimately, Apple spent a lot of time and a lot of energy on stage today talking about features that require advanced, real-deal artificial intelligence and machine learning technology to work. But it never addressed the topic head-on, focusing instead on the cool features coming to consumers soon.

Apple is famous for its willingness to wait on integrating a new technology into its technology before it can get it just exactly right. And artificial intelligence is notoriously hard to get right. If Apple is putting it into consumer-facing products, it’s a sign of confidence from a company that some are concerned could become the next BlackBerry.


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