Tim Cook on Screen Time (and where AI may fit in)

From the excellent GQ profile posted a couple weeks ago:

“We try to get people tools in order to help them put the phone down,” Cook says, gently. “Because my philosophy is, if you’re looking at the phone more than you’re looking in somebody’s eyes, you’re doing the wrong thing. So we do things like Screen Time. I don’t know about you, but I pretty religiously look at my report.”

I have a young child who is, perhaps predictably, obsessed with my phone—he chases it around the room. When I share this with Cook, he nods with something between recognition and reproach. “Kids are born digital, they’re digital kids now,” Cook says. “And it is, I think, really important to set some hard rails around it. We make technology to empower people to be able to do things they couldn’t do, to create things they couldn’t create, to learn things they couldn’t learn. And I mean, that’s really what drives us. We don’t want people using our phones too much. We’re not incentivized for that. We don’t want that. We provide tools so people don’t do that.”

It's hard to take Cook seriously about this in the context of a two sentence statement in a keynote video, but this reads as believable.

I still think about my first dinner out after buying the original iPhone in 2007. Becky and I went to P.F. Chang's and I sat there helplessly trying to load articles over AT&T's garbage Edge network, ignoring my (phoneless) spouse. She made her dissatisfaction known, and we've been pretty firm about not using phones around each other ever since.

The fact that it was "smart" wasn't what made the iPhone so addictive, it's that it was also nice to use. And that combo is why it has become so dangerous when used thoughtlessly.

I'm grateful for those early experiences where I was the only one with a (recognizable) smartphone in a space. Once, walking down an airplane aisle, I remember being stopped by four or five passengers if "that" was an iPhone. Because other people saw me glued to my phone and judged me for how unnatural that seemed, I had it baked in my head the truth that it is unnatural and needs to be handled with the same level of care as any foreign object that human evolution couldn't have prepared us for.

Apple's tools around Screen Time, Focus modes, notifications, etc., are a confusing mess. That they exist at all is, I suppose, a blessing owed to Cook's stated beliefs above. But for Apple to escape culpability in fostering information addiction in half the world's population, they need to do more than provide a hodge podge of arcane configuration options. They need to make it as easy to be empowered without distraction as they strive to make other experiences feel seamless. It feels really natural to pair some AirPods to an iPhone. It should feel that straightforward to configure settings that better establish that the phone works for the user, as opposed to the other way around.

This is actually one way in which the dystopian film Her gives me a bit of hope. If an on-device AI built with a large language model can be made to act as a personal assistant, it could run interference on the users behalf, dismissing some notifications, acting on others, and reminding users when their on-device activities are at odds with their stated goals or even a healthy mental state.

Putting AI to work on behalf of the user is a surprisingly achievable thing, and Apple is well-positioned to do it in a way they were never in a position to compete with the surveillance capitalism of ad-based social networks. This is as much the next frontier as AR/VR is, and it's worth more attention than I suspect it's getting.