Artificial intelligence (AI) has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the tech industry for a while, with the technology promising to transform how firms across almost every industry do business.

It's also something that's increasingly cropping up in the latest smartphones. When most people think of AI on their mobiles, the first thing that springs to mind is likely to be Siri on the iPhone, Android's Google Assistant, or Samsung's Bixby (there was also Microsoft's Cortana, but with the death of Windows Mobile, that's already been confined to the history books). 

But the latest AI chips do a lot more than manage virtual assistants, and according to Gartner, 80 per cent of new handsets will include on-device AI capabilities by 2022, up from just ten per cent in 2017. So what will the future hold for AI in the smartphone sector?

The future of virtual assistants?

One role for AI will be in continuing to improve virtual assistants, making them even more like their human counterparts. For instance, Google has recently announced that its Duplex service is going live on more devices, including non-Pixel Android handsets and iPhones.

First shown off by the company last year, this is essentially an amped-up chatbot that allows the Google Assistant to make phone calls on behalf of the user. Currently used primarily for making restaurant reservations, all a user has to do is tell the assistant the time and location they'd like, and the AI assistant will actually call the restaurant and speak with the staff to place a booking.

At the moment, it still has a few limitations. As well as being only available in select US cities, there are restrictions on what it can be used for, and only certain restaurants will actually accept it.

It's already been dialled back from its first appearance at the 2018 Google I/O developer's conference. In that first demonstration, it gave no indication that the recipient wasn't talking to an actual human and even added filler words, such as 'um' and 'er', to make it seem more natural.

Now it will identify itself as calling from Google and ask if it is ok to record the call – perhaps reflecting the fact that, for many people, there's still something more than a little creepy about a machine trying to pass itself off as human. But as it advances, it will become able to do a lot more.

Improving the user experience

Google Duplex is one of the more high-profile ways in which AI is set to enhance how we use our smartphones, but many of the other applications will be much less visible to the casual user – yet may still have a huge impact.

For example, one feature that's starting to crop up in more devices is machine learning technology that can monitor how an individual uses their phone, then optimise the performance of the device accordingly to improve factors like speed and battery life. For instance, if it learns a user frequently loads a certain app at certain times of the day, it will start to run it in the background, ready to instantly popup when the user requests it.

It could even add in factors such as location data to make life quicker and easier for users, such as opening a ticketing app when a user walks into a train station, or preparing a designated payments service for checkout when a user enters a supermarket.

Improving how we interact with our devices will be another key step forward. The natural-language processing that ensures Google Assistant or Siri can understand what you're saying to it can also be used to run improved real-time translation apps and greater voice control over every aspect of the smartphone's features.

Image recognition tools are also set to be another key AI feature for smartphones, and these will have an impact on tools such as augmented reality (AR) features, as well as in photography. Already, many of the latest smart devices can automatically adjust their camera apps for a wide range of conditions, adding filters or other special effects, and enabling users to focus on certain aspects without direct input.

While many of these may not have the 'wow factor' of a virtual assistant that can make calls on your behalf and hold full conversations as easily as a human, these behind-the-scenes advances are likely to be the backbone of many smartphones in the coming years, working together to seamlessly create more powerful, easier-to-use mobile gadgets that make our lives easier than ever.

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