We were all fascinated by Siri when she first burst onto the scene five years ago. The world was captivated, the talking computer had finally arrived and was easily available. Since then, more fascinating examples of artificial intelligence (AI) have emerged. Siri is so 2011.

While other tech companies have been introducing flashy new examples of AI at play, it appeared that Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) had lost its advantage and was falling behind in the pursuit of this nascent technology. While some thought Apple had languished, it turns out it has been quietly integrating AI into many everyday features of its iconic iPhone. More importantly, Apple says it's doing so while protecting your privacy.

Apple has been quietly upgrading Siri using artificial intelligence. Image source: Pixabay.

There's more going on under the hood

Siri got its first major overhaul in mid-2014 when its voice recognition was shifted to a neural network. This AI model, designed to simulate the human brain, is a combination of software and algorithms that improves over time by learning from its experience. This was the first of many such upgrades to Siri, all without much fanfare.

Apple has been using AI to improve a number of its native apps. The Maps app will automatically identify traffic problems and route you around them. It will also help you find your car in the parking lot. The Photos app will identify the people in your photos and can group them together. The Memories app will collect images from your phone to create an event video, memorializing a recent outing or vacation. iMessage will automatically translate text to emojis. 

Siri can interact with third-party apps to order pizza, schedule an Uber or Lyft, or start a workout. It will integrate with other popular apps such as WhatsApp, Skype, WeChat, and Pinterest.

Apple isn't stopping there. Siri is available on Apple Watches and TVs, and with the macOS Sierra update, it will even work on laptops and Macintosh computers. It will now search for documents on your computer and narrow those searches even further using keywords.

Better selfies and a secret...

Improved images using AI technology. Image source: Apple.

Apple used AI to strengthen the capabilities of the camera on its iPhone 7. It claims this is not only the best camera in any smartphone, but thanks to the company's software, the iPhone 7 can produce images that once required an expensive camera and professional photographer. Using AI and algorithms, it can distinguish between the subject of the photo and the background, which simply wasn't possible with previous smartphone cameras due to the size of the aperture. This latest upgrade can also determine depth with the introduction of two lenses.

There is intriguing evidence that more powerful AI may be coming with the recent discovery of a specialized chip within the iPhone. The field-programmable gate array processor inside the latest iPhone can be re-purposed after installation, and has historically been used to accelerate machine learning. Apple has repeatedly said that it would protect user privacy, and does so by keeping the most sensitive user data stored locally on the device. This latest revelation would be in keeping with that philosophy by enabling more sophisticated machine learning capabilities directly on the phone.

While other companies are uploading data to the cloud to achieve advances in AI, Apple says it can make the same gains, all while protecting your privacy. It's tapping the concept of differential privacy, which seeks to identify trends without sacrificing personal data. In this technology, electronic "noise" is added to information on the phone, protecting the raw data and transmitting only the trends. This approach keeps user data at the local phone level while allowing Apple to continue its advances in AI.

In a recent interview, Tim Cook said:

Look at the (technologies) that will be dominant in smartphones of the future -- like AI. AI will make this product even more essential to you. It will become even a better assistant than it is today. So where you probably aren't leaving home without it today -- you're really going to be connected to it in the future...we do all of that while protecting your privacy. Instead of passing all that information to the cloud, where we're maintaining it all, we do a lot of it on the device itself. So you're in control of your own data.

Foolish final word

As the use of AI becomes more prolific, justifiable concerns regarding protecting individual information may become more prevalent. If Apple succeeds in gathering the data it needs while still protecting the data of its users, this may force other companies to follow suit. Apple has always demonstrated a concern for protecting customer data. In a recent extreme example, it stood against the FBI in early 2016, rejecting a request to unlock the iPhone of the terrorist behind the San Bernardino mass shooting, citing privacy concerns.

Putting user privacy first gives Apple a continuing competitive advantage, even as other companies garner headlines around their AI breakthroughs.