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HomeTechWelcome to the Era of the A.I. Smartphone

Welcome to the Era of the A.I. Smartphone

Brian X. Chen

Every year, Apple and Google announce major software updates that bring new features to our smartphones, like cosmetic overhauls to the home screen, stronger privacy protections and fun messaging tools. This year, the changes will feel more radical because the companies are focusing on reinventing our phones with artificial intelligence.

At its annual software developer conference on Monday, Apple showed a host of enhancements coming this fall to iOS 18, its operating system powering iPhones. The new tools include a revamped version of its voice assistant, Siri, that is easier to talk to and an A.I. system that will generate images, create summaries of web articles and craft responses to text messages and emails.

Apple’s news followed Google’s Android announcements last month, which included an A.I. system that automatically summarizes audio transcripts, detects whether a phone conversation is likely a scam and helps students with homework.

Because A.I. tech is still new, it’s unclear whether these improvements will resonate with the masses. The change that will have a more immediate effect has to do with old-school text messages — also known as the green bubble. Apple said its new software would adopt a messaging standard that would let iPhone users send higher-quality messages to Androids, addressing an issue that has made it more difficult for people to communicate for more than a decade.

Apple and Google are set to release their free software updates for iOS and Android this fall. Here’s what to know about how our smartphones will change.

Apple said it had completely reworked Siri, its 13-year-old virtual assistant.

The assistant will soon be powered by Apple Intelligence, the company’s version of a “large language model.” That type of A.I. technology uses statistics and complex algorithms to guess what words belong together, similar to the autocomplete feature on your phone. It’s the same type of underlying technology we’ve seen powering chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Gemini. Apple said its system was more private than others’ because people’s data would remain on their iPhones.

The upgrade will make Siri capable of processing the context of a conversation, and allow users to speak more naturally with the virtual assistant. For instance, you could say, “What’s the weather in Santa Cruz? Oh, wait, I meant San Francisco,” followed by “Schedule a coffee meeting there tomorrow at 9 a.m.”

The new and more capable Siri will also be able to handle more complex tasks, such as searching your photo album for an image of your driver’s license and pulling the ID number to paste into a form, Apple said.

In contrast, the old version of Siri could react only to a database of commands and questions it was programmed to understand, such as “What’s the weather in San Francisco?” and “Schedule a coffee meeting in San Francisco.”

Apple Intelligence will also enable iPhone users to automatically generate images inside messages, Apple said. For instance, if you wish a friend a happy birthday, the A.I. could review your photo album for an image of that friend, after which it could generate an avatar of that person with balloons.

The A.I. will also be usable in writing apps like Mail and Notes. Users can highlight text for proofreading or rewriting in a different style. Inside the Safari web browser, users can also highlight articles to generate short summaries.

Apple said it had formed a partnership with OpenAI so that Siri could tap into ChatGPT for help with tasks like generating a list of recipe ideas.

(The New York Times sued OpenAI and its partner Microsoft for copyright infringement of news content related to A.I. systems.)

The A.I. features are arriving only on the newest, fastest iPhones, including the iPhone 15 Pro, this fall.

Only owners of Google’s Pixel phones can use most of Google’s latest A.I. features; support for other Android devices is expected later this year.

For the past year, Google has let users test Gemini, its new A.I. assistant, which requires downloading an app. (By default, Android phones will still come loaded with Google Assistant, the virtual assistant that is similar to Amazon’s Alexa and the older version of Siri.) Similar to OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Gemini acts like a chatbot that generates responses to whatever prompt you throw at it, including “Write a poem about dogs in San Francisco.”

A new version of Gemini, called Nano, focuses on handling A.I. tasks directly on Pixel phones rather than processing the requests on Google’s servers, for privacy purposes.

One feature for scam detection involves using A.I. to listen to your phone calls. If the conversation fits the pattern of a scam, such as a fraudster’s asking for your online banking password, an alert is sent to your phone.

Another feature, Circle to Search, lets users circle an image to ask Google for information. This feature has now been expanded to let students circle a math or physics problem for help. Google’s A.I. will then generate a list of steps on how to solve the problem.

Gemini Nano can also take a transcript automatically generated from an audio recording and create written summaries, which could be useful for meetings. Another tool, Magic Compose, can be used inside Google’s Messages app to quickly rewrite a message in a different style.

For more than a decade, smartphone users everywhere have confronted the green-versus-blue bubble divide. When iPhone users send texts to other iPhones, the messages appear blue and can tap into exclusive perks like fun emojis and animations. But if an iPhone user texts an Android user, the bubble turns green, many features break, and photos and videos deteriorate in quality.

Apple is finally taking a step toward bridging that divide. It said that in iOS 18, its messages app would adopt Rich Communication Services, a standard that Google and others integrated into their apps years ago. Texts sent between iPhones and Androids will remain green, but images and videos will be higher quality.

The result will probably be profound. Many iPhone and Android users said they felt discouraged sending messages to each other because the image quality was poor. The Justice Department, which this year accused Apple of placing restrictions on its phones to maintain a monopoly, viewed the messaging incompatibility as a pressure tactic to persuade people to buy iPhones.

Apple also said it was bringing a feature to its iMessage app that might feel long overdue: the ability to schedule a message to send later. That could help iPhone users respect one another’s boundaries by scheduling a message to send when the recipient is off work, for example.

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