Apple reportedly has secret weapon in AI wars — what’s the virtual black box?

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This summer at WWDC, Apple is expected to reveal its AI strategy for iOS 18 and Siri, among other AI-based announcements. 

To compete in a suddenly crowded AI market, the company is planning to offer a combination of on-device and server processing. Apple has already been reported to be building custom M2 and M4 chips for AI servers. In recent years, the company has made promises to protect user data. AI and how it’s being implemented has created a number of privacy and security concerns.

According to a new report from The Information, Apple is planning to process data from AI applications in a “virtual black box.” Former Apple employees told the magazine that this black box would make it impossible for employees to access the data.

Internally, the company has been working on a secret project called Apple Chips in Data Centers (ACDC, hardy-har-har). ACDC is supposed to allow for black box processing. 

Generally, when cloud servers process data, it is only encrypted on disk when it is stored. However, the data has to be decrypted into memory to be processed and transferred.

ACDC sounds like a form of confidential computing, an industry term that means that data is kept private while it's processed.

Because Apple makes its own chipsets for servers and devices, it allows the company to control the systems and design more secure systems. An advantage over competitors who rely on Intel or AMD, according to sources The Information spoke with.

Based on the report, Apple has been working on some version of a confidential computing initiative for the last three years, well before the recent AI boom. 

It’s speculated that by offloading AI processing from devices, Apple could create lighter wearable devices that don’t require powerful chips or cooling means. Former Apple employees claimed the company has ambitions to design lightweight headsets and glasses.  With speculation that Google has AI smart glasses in the works, it wouldn't be surprising that Apple wants to compete in that market.

Currently, Apple devices utilize a feature called Secure Enclave to keep user data private. It is a portion of the chip that is physically separate from the main processor and acts like a mini-on device black box for things like fingerprints captured by the fingerprint sensor, passwords and cryptographic keys.

However, it’s not clear how Apple’s plans will remain secure when their broad user base starts sending multiple requests to single chips serving multiple users. It’s also unclear how quickly Apple can scale. 

Right now, Apple is behind its competitors in the AI market, which The Information largely claims is due to the company’s stance on privacy.

Apple recently confirmed that WWDC will start on Monday, June 10 and run through June 14. Check back with us during those days, as we’ll be covering everything that the firm announces, including its forthcoming AI strategy.

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Scott Younker
West Coast Reporter

Scott Younker is the West Coast Reporter at Tom’s Guide. He covers all the lastest tech news. He’s been involved in tech since 2011 at various outlets and is on an ongoing hunt to build the easiest to use home media system. When not writing about the latest devices, you are more than welcome to discuss board games or disc golf with him.