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Apple unveils ‘outrageously powerful chip for AI’ in latest iPads

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Apple has unveiled new iPads featuring what it called “an outrageously powerful chip for AI”, signalling the Silicon Valley giant’s growing focus on artificial intelligence services.

The company launched the “M4” chip for its latest iPad Pro devices on Tuesday, just months after it introduced the M3 alongside new Macs in October.

AI developers’ insatiable demand for computing power is driving Big Tech companies such as Apple and Nvidia to increase the pace at which they push out more powerful processors capable of handling vast amounts of data.

Chip design has become a vital capability for the world’s richest tech companies, with Microsoft, Amazon and Google all unveiling new processors focused on AI in the past few months.

Tim Millet, Apple’s vice-president of platform architecture, hailed the combination of M4’s central processing unit, graphics processor and dedicated AI capabilities — which it calls its “neural engine” — as a big step forward over its previous chips.

He said at an Apple event on Tuesday that these components taken together made the “M4 an outrageously powerful chip for AI”.

Apple has come under pressure from investors to unveil new AI features to compete with Microsoft-backed OpenAI and Google, at a time when iPhone sales have been falling.

The explosion in new AI apps since OpenAI launched its breakthrough ChatGPT chatbot 18 months ago has triggered a race to secure the powerful processors needed to build so-called large language models — AI systems capable of producing humanlike text and imagery.

Apple has designed its own Arm-based processors for its iPhones since 2010 and made the switch from Intel chips for its Mac computers in 2020 with the M1.

The latest iPad Pro models unveiled at an event on Tuesday offer thinner and brighter screens that require more sophisticated processors. But, like earlier incarnations of its M-series chips, the M4 is likely to mark the beginning of a wider upgrade to its custom chips across Apple’s product range, paving the way for more advanced AI capabilities.

Apple’s new chips will allow it to bring many AI features that run in the cloud on to devices © Apple

Nvidia, the Silicon Valley company whose chips have become highly sought after by start-ups and Big Tech companies, launched a new generation of its AI processors last month as it looks to cement its dominance.

Analysts say that Apple’s latest chips give it an opportunity to bring many AI features that run in the cloud on to its customers’ own devices, making apps run faster and offering greater privacy.

“The flexibility of Apple silicon architecture remains one of their biggest technical advantages over competitors,” said Ben Bajarin, tech industry analyst at Creative Strategies, adding that the company was “starting to be more intentional in calling out its [chips’] role in AI”.

Millet said the M4 took advantage of the most advanced manufacturing process technology that is currently available at scale — the so-called second-generation 3nm node — which promises to improve power efficiency. The chip also offers more memory bandwidth, a crucial feature for data-hungry AI applications.

He took a swipe at Apple’s rivals by pointing out the iPhone maker had “for years” been dedicating a portion of its processors to AI features, known as the neural engine, claiming it was “more powerful” than the equivalent chip in “any AI PC today”.

Apple’s PC rival Microsoft is planning a Windows event this month that is expected to focus on AI and portability, featuring new Arm-based processors from Qualcomm.

“The new iPad Pro with M4 is a great example of how building best-in-class custom silicon enables breakthrough products,” said Johny Srouji, Apple’s senior vice-president of hardware technologies.

Apple’s event also featured a redesigned Pencil stylus for its tablets and a more affordable version of its larger 13-inch iPad model.

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