AI is already everywhere on our phones, from the tools we use to edit photos to apps for language translation. But at CES 2024, I got a glimpse into how generative AI (the flavor of AI that powers ChatGPT) could change the way we use our phones more broadly.
Google’s Sameer Samat, general manager and vice president of Android, Google Play and Wear OS, sees advancements in AI as a big part of where phones are headed. We spoke in a quiet room amid jovial Android mascots dancing across a giant screen and life-sized Android statues that adorned Google’s booth just outside the Las Vegas Convention Center.
Smartphones have existed for more than a decade, but the software that powers those devices hasn’t changed much on a fundamental level. Despite the prevalence of virtual helpers like the Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, using your phone still largely involves opening apps to get things done. Samat sees that changing, but gradually.
He likens smartphones to cars: You can’t take away fundamental elements like the steering wheel and pedals and jump straight into autonomous driving. Instead, it’s about looking for how AI can take over some tasks in ways that are actually useful.
“We’re still early days and all of that,” he said. “But I think we’re seeing how that can come together in ways that can really help you accomplish a lot more.”
That’s already starting to happen on Android broadly and Google’s Pixel phones more specifically with AI-powered features that can rewrite text messages in a different tone or move objects in photos. The next step, however, could be a more dramatic change to your phone’s underlying interface, but don’t expect that to happen overnight.
“Over time, I think the opportunity is to move to that world where the interface does change,” he said. “But I think that will be gradual. And we have to be careful to make sure that the user still feels comfortable and familiar with the overall smartphone experience, because we do depend on it every day.”
Samat couldn’t really say what that would look like just yet. But he explained how products and services powered by large language models — the underlying AI model for understanding natural language and producing conversational results — differ from voice assistants from the past decade.
“It’s not just a matter of parsing a structured sentence and having custom integrations to turn the lights on and off,” Samat said when describing existing voice assistants. “But rather [it’s] the ability to truly take natural language and convert it into an action in code.”
New phones will likely have more powerful chips designed to process that kind of data on device rather than in the cloud. Doing so is generally better for privacy since information doesn’t have to leave the phone. Google’s latest Tensor processor and Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chip, which is expected to arrive in new phones throughout 2024, have both been developed with this in mind.
As for other ways in which the rise of AI could change phone design, it’s too early to tell beyond speculation. But Google isn’t alone in viewing AI as being a major part of what’s next for the smartphone and beyond. In November, for instance, Samsung announced Galaxy AI, which it describes as “comprehensive mobile AI experience.” A startup called Rabbit just announced a new pocket-sized device called the R1 that foregoes traditional apps entirely in favor of an interface based on AI. And Apple is expected to inject more AI into the next version of iOS, according to Bloomberg.
If generative AI lives up to its promises, it could end up being exactly what the smartphone industry needs to entice consumers to buy new phones.
“And [consumers] think that’s exciting, and that feels like the future,” he said in reference to AI features like Google’s Magic Editor, which lets you enlarge and manipulate specific objects in photos. “And things that feel like the future and are typically things that we see people going to the store to buy.”
Editors’ note: CNET is using an AI engine to help create some stories. For more, see this post.