A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 30, 2023

Is Apple's Cautious Approach To AI Really Making It Less Competitive?

Apple's approach reflects its desire for perfection. But for AI creators, move fast and break things is clearly the ethos and Apple could lose talent to those who are willing tolerate greater risk for greater reward faster. JL

Samuel Axon reports in ars technica:

Apple is lagging behind Big Tech competitors in radical new AI innovations. As Google restructures itself (for) Bard and Microsoft injects ChatGPT and AI features into products from Bing to Word to GitHub, Apple's approach to AI has focused on practical applications in features for the iPhone. Apple has been conservative, seeking to use AI to improve the user experience, not to reinvent or disrupt existing industries. (But) ambitious AI developers want to work in an environment unshackled by bureaucracy and restrictions. Apple's brain drain could be (its) undoing as it seeks to compete with Google, Microsoft, and others. Explosive innovation in this space might be different than markets where Apple used its usual strategy. New developments in AI could threaten its position in the long run.

A new behind-the-scenes report in The Information details Apple's struggles to keep up with AI features and innovation amid the rise of large language models (LLMs) that drive groundbreaking tools like ChatGPT.

The article focuses on the efforts by the company's AI chief since 2018, John Giannandrea, to bring order to a fragmented AI group and make Apple more competitive with companies like Google, from which Giannandrea defected. In some ways, The Information's piece is a roundup or a confirmation of what we already know—like Apple employees' frustrations with the limitations of Siri's underlying technology, which had been previously reported—but it calls on new sources to add additional context and depth to the narrative.

For example, it reveals that the team that has been working on Apple's long-in-development mixed reality headset was so frustrated with Siri that it considered developing a completely separate, alternative voice control method for the headset.

But it goes beyond just recounting neutral details; rather, it lays all that information out in a structured case to argue that Apple is ill-prepared to compete in the fast-moving field of AI.

Think different, indeed

As Google restructures itself to pour efforts into products like Bard and Microsoft injects ChatGPT and related AI features into a wide variety of products from Bing to Word to GitHub, Apple's recent approach to AI has been different; it has focused almost exclusively on practical applications in features for the iPhone. The emphasis is on using machine learning to improve palm detection on the iPad, give iPhone users more neat photo editing tricks, and improve suggestions in Apple's content-oriented apps, among other similar things.

That's a different tack than the ambitious, blue sky experimentation and innovation you see at companies like OpenAI, Microsoft, or Google. Apple has been comparatively conservative, seeking to use AI and machine learning as a tool to improve the user experience, not to truly reinvent how much of anything is done or disrupt existing industries.

In fact, The Information's sources offer up numerous examples of senior Apple leadership putting the brakes on (or at least reining in) aggressive efforts within the company's AI group for fear of seeing products like Siri present the same kinds of embarrassing factual errors or unhinged behavior that ChatGPT and its ilk have done. In other words, Apple isn't keen on tolerating what many working in AI research and product development call "hallucinations."

For example, Siri's responses are not generative—they're human-written and human-curated. Apple leadership has been hesitant to allow Siri developers to push the voice assistant toward detailed back-and-forth conversations like you see in the latest LLM-driven chatbots. Those are seen as more attention-grabbing than usefulness, and Apple is worried about being responsible for bad answers.

Some engineers within the company have argued that Apple should be more tolerant of bizarre edge cases and factual errors, saying that a certain scale and comfort for wonkiness is needed to truly improve them. Notably, several senior people within the company have abandoned ship for Google or startups out of frustrations with Apple's conservative mindset.

Further, Apple has increasingly focused on running AI and machine learning features on users' local devices—both because that enabled faster response times and because of the company's public commitment to user privacy. For some features, that is an advantage (as Giannandrea explained to Ars Technica in 2020). But to date, LLMs typically run in the cloud, and some have questioned whether they'll ultimately work as well on local devices.

Nonetheless, The Information's sources say that Apple's engineers have already begun work on some major LLM-driven features, and that the company hopes to introduce them in an iOS update next year. We don't yet know what those features will be, though, nor do we know anything about the approach Apple is taking in developing and implementing them.

Analysis: Winning the race might not be everything

There's no doubt that Apple is (at least as far as what we can see from the outside) lagging behind Big Tech competitors in radical new AI innovations, even though its software and devices are now filled with little AI-driven features that improve the user experience in small but meaningful ways. And commentators are right to question whether Apple can compete when its approach has historically been so conservative.

That said, there are plenty of people saying that the rapid development of ChatGPT and its ilk and Microsoft's gung-ho approach with Bing Chat could prove reckless, with enormous, potentially negative unforeseen consequences. Apple's conservative streak might be the right move in the long run—at least when it comes to minimizing externalities.

The hype around generative AI and LLMs is strong and for good reason. But we don't yet know exactly how all this will play out. It's never been in Apple's DNA to roll the dice to find out. Rather, the company has sometimes found its biggest successes in picking up the leftover pieces after other, more ambitious innovators crashed, burned, and took others with them.

That said, it's understandable that ambitious AI developers want to work in an environment that is comparatively unshackled by bureaucracy and restrictions. The Information makes one particularly compelling argument: Apple's brain drain could ultimately be the company's undoing as it seeks to compete with Google, Microsoft, and others—even more than any difference in philosophy. And the explosive innovation in this particular space might be different than the markets where Apple has used its usual strategy.

Right now, Apple is thriving relative to most of its competitors, but new developments in AI could threaten its position in the long run. It will be fascinating to see what Apple does with the new LLM features hinted at in The Information's report—will it compromise its commitment to virtually no errors, or will it loosen things up for the sake of staying competitive?

There's no way for us to know now, but we'll likely find out within the next year or two.


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