Apple has a knack for accelerating technologies. (Just ask the wireless ear bud market, after the iPhone 7 nixed the headphone port.) Now it may be poised to do it once more, this time with artificial intelligence.
According to comments made by Jeff Williams, Apple’s chief operating officer, on Monday, the company sees its latest iPhone X as a major AI platform. At an event for Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, which sources processing chips for the iPhone, Williams told an audience of TSMA executives, “We think that the frameworks that we’ve got, the ‘neural engines’ we’ve put in the phone, in the watch…we do view that as a huge piece of the future. We believe these frameworks will allow developers to create apps that will do more and more in this space, so we think the phone is a major platform for the future.”
The iPhone X, which will open for pre-orders this week, features AI technology embedded right into its processor. The chip, software and upgraded cameras power an array of capabilities, from Face ID for secure logins and payments authorizations, to a new sweep of photo enhancements. For instance, Face ID will be available to partners in the same way fingerprint Touch ID has been, and they can support it, so customers can pay for purchases online and off, or login to secured online shopping accounts. But the feature, which mathematically maps the user’s face, wouldn’t work without a powerful device capable of reading the image and doing the computations.
AI also factors into other features and technologies. Imagine a virtual host or personal shopper that can learn customer preferences with a natural-sounding conversation or offer advice based on outfits the user’s worn. How much of that Apple’s technology allows will be evident when the phone launches, but eventually, most routine tasks may not be foiled by a lack of internet connection.
The new breed of smartphone photos, thanks to competitors like the Pixel 2 XL and Samsung Galaxy S8+, may raise expectations among consumers. With AI masterminding iPhone camera features, such as portrait lighting, the coming influx of photos will flood social media feeds all the more. Within that are opportunities for customer-engagement campaigns geared toward people who like to marvel in their own photography genius. But that extra AI-aided noise could make it harder for brands to stand out, said IDC analyst Ramon Llama. Long-term, they may also need to dig deep and evaluate their approach to technology.
“Retailers have been touting the AI and especially the augmented reality piece,” he said. “We know that retailers are already moving there. Are you? If you think it’s as simple as having a web site and putting products up, think again.” He said businesses that embrace emerging technologies will be in a better position in the future, particularly when it comes to consumer expectations.
For Jamie Armstrong, commercial lead of retail for Shopify, the advancements represent improvements to the customer experience. “Overall, these technological advancements are being developed to support a new way of being for consumers,” he said. “Consumers today want and expect to be able to shop whenever, wherever and however they choose and as seamlessly as possible. Technology needs to provide retailers with the conduits to meet these new expectations.”
Armstrong is encouraged by Face ID especially, and how that may improve transactions. “What the iPhone X is providing with facial recognition, in particular, will create new possibilities for shopper recognition and card-free payment,” Armstrong added. “That will further reduce the friction in the buying process.”
AI may seem especially hot now, but its beginnings can be traced back to 1950, with a paper titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” by Alan Turing. So, the tech community has been working on artificial intelligence for many years. Lately, the critical nature of smartphones in consumers’ computing lives shifted some of the AI focus from powerful desktop terminals to the phones and phablets in people’s pockets and bags.
“We’re expecting our phones to be our computers,” Llamas said. “We’re expecting them to be mobile. Capture the moment, store it and return to it.” Leading smartphone makers or developers have jumped into AI with both feet, including Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon and Chinese smartphone maker Huawei. The latter, which just introduced its Huawei Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro — along with a Porsche-designed version of the phone — custom built an AI-driven processor called the Kirin 970.
“I think we’re at an inflection point, with on-device computing, coupled with the potential of AI, to really change the world,” Williams said in his session.
On-device computing for AI was unthinkable a few years ago. Most tasks that require serious processing have historically required a data connection, whether cellular or Wi-Fi. For instance, this is the reason Siri doesn’t work without coverage. She likely still won’t function completely without a connection, but Apple’s “neural engine” could feasibly handle some light tasks. A better, more functional Siri in the hands of tens of millions of people could lead to another ripple effect: Greater usage of voice assistants.
App makers often go where the people are, so 2017 may be laying groundwork for a rising tide of conversational commerce.
One big constraint at the moment is the iPhone X’s price. That $999 figure may give potential customers a reason to pause, at least for now. But with iPhone ownership hitting an all-time high in the United States this year — according to a comScore MobiLens Plus study, more than 85 million people age 13 or older own an Apple mobile — there could be a tidal wave coming that will boost shopping by voice in general, as people get more accustomed to talking to their gadgets.
Meanwhile, phone-based AI will evolve and become something that “will feel more personal,” added Llamas. “It’s going to be hyper-personal, geared specifically towards you.”
And, at least from a technology standpoint, “it won’t take that long at all.”
Apple declined to comment for this story.