For several years, Alphabet Inc. (NASDAQ:GOOGL) (NASDAQ:GOOG) has been one of the acknowledged leaders in artificial intelligence (AI). Its Google Brain project was pioneering work in deep learning, a subdiscipline of AI that builds software models inspired by the structure and function of the human brain and how it sorts and processes data. Called neural networks, these models mimic the inner workings of neurons and synapses, and allow these systems to learn in much the same way as humans.

Their ability to excel at pattern recognition has led to such breakthroughs as the voice recognition employed by digital assistants and smart speakers, the image recognition that tags friends in photos, and language translation services found on Google search, and it forms the foundations for self-driving cars.

Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL), was hailed for the initial promise of its Siri voice-activated digital assistant, but seemed to languish as the AI that powered Siri's responses was overshadowed by more impressive advances from the Google AI camp. To its credit, Apple said its primary focus was on user privacy, which may have initially hampered its efforts. With the release of Apple's latest flagship iPhone, however, it may finally have overtaken its rival in smartphone AI.

iPhone X with water splashing around screen.

The iPhone X has leading-edge technology under the hood. Image source: Apple.

AI pioneer

Google's work on the Google Brain project in 2012 showed one of the earliest concrete examples of the potential for AI when its system was fed 10 million randomly selected images from YouTube and was able to correctly identify cats. Its purchase of deep learning start-up DeepMind in 2014 solidified its lead in the space. DeepMind's AlphaGo computer was able to achieve what many thought impossible just a few short years ago, defeating the reigning world champion in the ancient and highly sophisticated Chinese game of Go.

With the recent release of its latest iPhone models, Apple appears to have surpassed Google in the crucial area of "at-the-edge" AI computing.

Apple's leading edge

Most AI systems reside on the cloud, as they require large amounts of data and processing power to do their best work. The more they are used, the smarter these systems become due to the ability to continuously hone and improve their learning. By comparison, cutting-edge AI computing happens on the devices themselves, as is the case with Apple's iPhone 8 and X.

In a research report from DigiTimes, analysts Ashley Huang and Luke Lin posit that Apple has taken the lead in the at-the-edge or "on-device" category. With the addition of the A11 Bionic chip, which Apple calls "the most powerful and smartest chip ever in a smartphone," the company has brought AI capabilities to the iPhone itself, foregoing the cloud. The analysts point out that:

The built-in dual-core neural engine chip incorporated within the A11 processors, which power the iPhone X and iPhone 8 devices, integrates functionality such as machine learning, inference model and related algorithm to perform as an application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC) chip for image recognition and achieve hardware acceleration. 

iPhone X users will experience the onboard AI with Face ID, Apple's cutting-edge facial recognition that uses 33,000 infrared dots to create a mathematical model of your face to "recognize" you and unlock your device. It can adapt to a gradually changing physical appearance over time. The data is stored in a secure enclave on the phone, and the processing that is done on the device is designed to protect user data. The neural engine on the A11 Bionic chip also improves the camera function and creates powerful augmented reality capabilities and immersive 3D games. 

Fast paced and ever changing

Apple has long insisted on the importance of user privacy, and by bringing its AI capabilities to the device, it has accomplished this to a greater degree, while also bringing a level of technological innovation that others have yet to achieve.

It is important to note that breakthroughs in AI technology are happening almost daily, and while Apple may have the lead, for now. But it can't afford to rest on its laurels for long -- Google and others will be looking to take back the lead from the iPhone maker. For the moment, though it can bask in the limelight.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.