Apple's latest acquisition hints at AI-powered iPhone plans

Startup DarwinAI's work in making AI systems smaller and more efficient sounds like just what Tim Cook and company need.
Written by Maria Diaz, Staff Writer
Siri on a phone screen
Thomas Trutschel/Contributor/Getty Images

Apple's latest acquisition of yet another AI startup provides insight into the tech giant's plans for artificial intelligence in 2024. The startup, DarwinAI, is a Canadian visual quality inspection business that has developed ways to make AI systems smaller and more efficient.  

Apple CEO Tim Cook has vowed to share more details about the company's AI advancements in 2024, and this latest acquisition of a company that makes AI systems run efficiently on smaller devices could reinforce the idea that Apple plans to run AI models on-device. 

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Executing AI algorithms on-device would align with Apple's privacy-focused view, as this process keeps the user's information on the device rather than sending it to cloud servers. This approach not only gives the user the benefit of added privacy but also results in lower latency and the ability to run AI tools without internet connectivity.

Siri already runs on-device on the iPhone, so Apple isn't diving into a novel concept with on-device AI. However, Apple has fallen behind in creating and launching generative AI tools, which require large language models (LLMs) and systems capable of generating content based on these models.

Smaller, pre-trained models that run efficiently would be best for running AI on-device. This may require optimization to reduce AI models' size and complexity without compromising performance. GPUs and specialized chips -- such as Apple's Neural Engine -- are also ways to speed up AI computations. 

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From what little we know about DarwinAI, it appears that this optimization for on-device execution is, in part, what the company was focusing on when Apple bought it. 

Since Apple purchased DarwinAI earlier this year, dozens of the startup's employees have joined Apple's AI division, as reported by Bloomberg sources who asked not to be identified because neither party has publicly announced the deal.

One of DarwinAI's co-founders, Dr. Alexander Wong, has been the director of Machine Learning Research at Apple since January, potentially giving some indication of when the deal happened.

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Apple has been buying more and more startups in order to fold their respective tech advancements, research, and talent into its operations. In 2023, Apple was the leader among its competitors in AI acquisition, taking over as many as 32 AI startups. In the same year, Google acquired 21 AI startups, Meta acquired 18, and Microsoft acquired 17.

Because Apple is so behind on the AI race and so secretive about its plans, our ears perk up each time it makes a new acquisition of an AI startup or when a morsel of a rumor trickles out. 

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