Imagine asking Apple’s Siri to show you an old photo taken from a child’s second birthday, or summarizing lengthy emails and writing drafts. Then consider Siri learning your schedule, preferences, even your personality, so it can better communicate with you throughout the day.

Generative AI, artificial intelligence that can provide thoughtful and thorough responses to questions and prompts, could potentially breathe new life into Apple’s iPhone lineup at a time when competitors are threatening to leave the company behind in the race to shape what could be a world-changing technology.

The company is widely expected to partner with ChatGPT maker OpenAI ahead of its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in June, where it will likely show off its first batch of AI tools coming to the iOS software.

Although artificial intelligence has powered some of the iPhone’s experiences for years, such as Live Text and improved autocorrect, generative AI could unlock new levels of interaction and personalization. All this during a time when the company is under pressure to catch up to rivals such as Google and Samsung, which are already using the technology in its smartphones.

“We see generative AI as a key opportunity across our products and believe we have advantages that set us apart there,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said on the company’s most recent earnings call in early May, noting there would be news announced in the “weeks ahead.”

Apple is not always first to adopt to emerging technologies — it typically researches, develops and aims to perfect them for years before including them in new products — but the speed at which the world is adopting generative AI is perhaps expediting the company’s need to have a smartphone with the most cutting-edge technology.

The debut of an AI iPhone could also entice consumers to upgrade at a time when they’ve been holding onto older models longer. Apple reported first-quarter revenue of US$90.8 billion, down 4 per cent year over year, as the tech giant continues to struggle with growth challenges, particularly in China, amid an uncertain economic environment.

Now all eyes shift to Apple for its take on generative AI. Here’s how that could play out on the iPhone:

A much smarter assissant

Although it’s unclear what exactly an iPhone in the generative AI world would look like, experts largely believe the biggest entrypoint is through Siri, the company’s virtual assistant with a hit-or-miss track record.

Integration with OpenAI’s latest ChatGPT-4o model could catapult Siri years forward, essentially turning the feature into an iPhone chatbot. This would enable Siri to perform specific tasks such as recalling a picture taken years ago on the device or answering detailed questions about the weather, the news or trivia. Over time, it could learn the user’s preferences and even personality, and respond accordingly.

Looking at how competitors have already introduced generative tools, the iPhone will also likely assist users with other tasks, such as offering to summarize and draft emails, or starting an online purchase return process.

Samsung’s “circle to search” feature, which allows users to quickly search for information on a device’s screen with a finger gesture, has received a lot of attention and is featured in marketing campaigns. Multimodal features – which refers to an AI system that can interpret and generate different types of data, such as text and images at the same time — like analysis of video footage and in-call spam detection could also form part of the tools, according to Paul Schell, industry analyst at tech intelligence firm ABI Research.

“Something similar would likely be included in an Apple offering, given its relative simplicity and appeal that goes beyond simple image search,” Schell said. “But verbal interactions with a bot like Siri will be much more natural and fluent, and its capabilities will go far beyond the previous, narrow domains, like news and weather updates.”

An AI iPhone could also adapt automatically and seamlessly to users, based on voice, audio and natural language, along with images and contextual cues.

“Generative AI will allow the next generations of iPhones to become a sixth sense, empowering us to scan and interact with the world around us,” said Thomas Husson, an analyst with market research firm Forrester.

Generative AI will also likely change Apple’s whole ecosystem by embedding it through its own apps, such as Apple Maps, iMovie and iPhoto, and release tools for developers for brands to develop new experiences through their own apps.

Expediting AI

Behind the scenes, Apple reportedly has been working on its on-device generative AI capabilities and acquiring companies for awhile, such as Canadian startup DarwinAI. It also has a machine learning research division dedicated to advancing artificial intelligence.

But after the launch of ChatGPT ignited an AI arms race in late 2022, followed by companies such as Google, Microsoft and Meta heavily pouring resources into developing related tools, Apple has remained relatively quiet about its visions for an AI-powered future.

Nabila Popal, a senior research director at market research firm IDC, said the pressure to be part of the conversation likely moved up the company’s timeline. Earlier this month, Bloomberg reported Apple was closing in on a deal with OpenAI to use its ChatGPT technology on iPhones, after holding similar talks with Google.

“Apple normally takes their time and doesn’t let the Android race rush [impact its moves], be it with foldables or 5G or even augmented and virtual reality,” Popal said. “And Apple then comes out and does it better than anyone else.”

“However this time, with AI, it is different,” she said. “It’s almost like Apple is being forced to show its hand early.”

She said consumers are considering AI capabilities of greater importance than any other feature when choosing their premium device, especially in China, where Apple is losing its marketshare.

“It’s not just because of the resurgence of Huawei but also because of lack of AI in their devices,” she said. “Chinese consumers want more from their premium phones.”

During its most recent iPad event, Apple reminded onlookers that it’s been using artificial intelligence in its products for years, including a neural processing engine to support its A11 bionic chip. But now it needs to show it’s going all in on artificial intelligence to stay relevant in a rapidly evolving industry.

“It’s no longer a question about whether or not Apple will announce something around generative AI, but Apple has to if they want to achieve growth in this highly competitive and innovative smartphone market, especially in China. … AI is one train Apple can’t afford to miss.”