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The iPhone Is Now an AI Trojan Horse

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Generative AI has become truly inescapable.

Illustration by The Atlantic. Source: Apple.

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Today, at Apple's annual developers conference—where new software products are previewed in slick video presentations—the company finally joined the generative-AI race. The company introduced Apple Intelligence, a suite of AI features that will be rolled out to the tech giant's latest operating systems starting this fall. New generative-AI models will help Apple users write work memos and highly personalized text; create images and emoji; connect and organize photos, calendar events, and emails.

The tools supposedly rely on the context of what's happening on your device: They'll be able to identify which contacts you are referencing and pull information from a range of apps. Apple offered a quintessentially Apple example in its marketing video: The senior vice president of software engineering, Craig Federighi, plays a busy dad who uses Apple Intelligence to figure out whether a last-minute meeting will conflict with his daughter's play. The tool pulls information from his calendar, scans a PDF his daughter sent him, and looks at the traffic on Apple Maps to figure out if he can make it on time. This, Apple stresses, is not some wonky enterprise-software solution—"This is AI for the rest of us," Federighi declares.

It's a helpful line, because it articulates how Apple sees itself: not just as a manufacturer of phones and laptops and a prestige movie-and-television studio, but as the central technological force mediating the overscheduled lives of upwardly mobile achievers. Apple Intelligence promises to synthesize all your disparate texts, emails, calendar invites, and photos for you. At one point in the conference keynote, an executive noted that Siri can now do in seconds what used to take a human minutes to accomplish. This is Apple's pitch distilled: the messy edges of your life, sanded down via Siri and brushed aluminum. You live; Apple expedites.

Before today, the narrative in Silicon Valley was that Apple is woefully late to the AI movement, letting companies such as OpenAI take the lead developing chatbots and other language models. But this analysis seems to misunderstand where the tech giant's true power lies. Apple reportedly has been in talks with both Google and OpenAI to integrate each company's generative-AI products into the iPhone. As today's event revealed, Apple made a deal with OpenAI first, and its ChatGPT model will be available to supplement Apple Intelligence features later this year. (Apple said it plans to incorporate models from other AI developers in the future.) It's likely a lucrative contract for OpenAI, but the start-up is arguably getting something even more valuable out of the agreement: access to millions of normal people.

Although ChatGPT had one of the most successful product launches of the past decade—reaching 100 million monthly users in nine weeks—its growth is reportedly stagnating, and the Apple deal represents by far the most mainstream deployment of the technology yet. The iPhone is becoming a kind of generative-AI Trojan horse. You could argue that OpenAI, which is still looking to normalize generative AI for late and skeptical adopters, should be paying Apple for the exposure. (An OpenAI spokesperson told us that the company would not be sharing the terms of the deal. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

Licensing a competitor's technology is normally a move born out of weakness, yet Apple projected confidence today. Nothing about Apple in 2024 is cool, but perhaps this is what it looks like when you've won, when you've succeeded in getting your products in everyone's hands and built your walled gardens. What do you do next? You become the delivery device. Apple's power is now in leveraging its captive user base. People use their iPhones, iPads, and Macs to create and store lots of data. Generative AI excels at organizing and synthesizing huge pools of information. By combining the technologies, Apple can offer users a clear value proposition: The more you buy into its ecosystem and entrust it with your personal information, the more useful its AI tools theoretically become. And Apple is the only way in—its touted privacy protections mean that OpenAI, and presumably any other outside AI provider, supposedly can't store user requests.

This is the key selling point for Apple. No single feature demonstrated today is new, exactly. Smartphone apps can already help draft an email or detect traffic en route to a calendar event. And the vision of an all-in-one AI assistant has been suggested by the likes of Google, Microsoft, OpenAI, and a plethora of failed AI-gadget start-ups. But Apple is betting that its AI offering will be greater than the sum of its parts. Adding up iPhones, iPads, Apple TVs, Macs, and AirPods, billions of the company's devices are used by people all over the world, perfect delivery vehicles for AI. The Apple announcement is the clearest sign that generative AI, foisted onto an enormous web of mainstream devices, will be essentially inescapable.

But the plan isn't guaranteed to work. AI, although popular, is far from widely adopted—Apple is now taking a chance to see what happens when all the mundane tasks in our lives come with a little pop-up widget that asks if we'd like a bot to rewrite that email with a slightly more "professional" tone. Already last month, Google began forcing AI-written responses upon 1 billion users of its search engine. The results, including medical misinformation, conspiracy theories, and plain nonsense, were so embarrassing that the company quickly appeared to roll back the function, at least temporarily.

Not once in its presentation did Apple mention that the technology could fail—that Apple Intelligence might not convert a time zone correctly when creating a calendar event based on an email, or that it might summarize a meeting incorrectly, or that it might book a hotel in Brooklyn, Connecticut, instead of New York City. Of course, that would have ruined the vibe and the overarching message of the day, which was clear: Generative AI is coming to your smartphone, your laptop, and your tablet, shortcomings be damned. The move could well strengthen the Apple ecosystem—but if the technology exhibits even some of the failures typical of nearly every major rollout over the past two years, it could also be another sort of Trojan horse, bringing down the walled garden from within.

Charlie Warzel is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Galaxy Brain, about technology, media, and big ideas. He can be reached via email.

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