Apple Inc. has acquired Canadian artificial intelligence startup DarwinAI, adding technology to its arsenal ahead of a big push into generative AI in 2024.

The iPhone maker purchased the business earlier this year, and dozens of DarwinAI’s employees have joined Apple’s artificial intelligence division, according to people with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because the deal hasn’t been announced. 

DarwinAI has developed AI technology for visually inspecting components during the manufacturing process and serves customers in a range of industries. But one of its core technologies is making artificial intelligence systems smaller and faster. That work that could be helpful to Apple, which is focused on running AI on devices rather than entirely in the cloud.

Alexander Wong, an AI researcher at the University of Waterloo who helped build the business, has joined Apple as a director in its AI group as part of the deal.

In response to questions about the deal, Cupertino, California-based Apple said it “buys smaller technology companies from time to time” but doesn’t discuss its plans.  

Waterloo, Ontario-based DarwinAI had raised more than US$15 million as of 2022, according to the Canadian startup community Communitech. It received investments from Honeywell Ventures and Inovia Capital, among other venture capital firms. The startup also has worked with companies like Lockheed Martin Corp. and Intel Corp., according to Communitech. 

The under-the-radar acquisition comes ahead of a big AI push for Apple this year. The company is adding features to its iOS 18 software that rely on generative AI, the technology behind ChatGPT and other groundbreaking tools. Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook has promised that Apple will “break new ground” in AI this year, and an announcement is expected as soon as the company’s worldwide developers conference in June.

Despite having acquired more AI companies than most rivals over the past decade, Apple has fallen behind in the generative AI market. It was caught flat-footed by the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in 2022, and tech peers like Google and Microsoft Corp. have stolen the spotlight with new features.

Internally, Apple has started integrating generative AI into its operations, using the technology to assist with customer service requests. It’s also planning to add features to its software for auto-creating presentations and completing blocks of texts. And Apple is working on a new version of its Xcode programming software that uses AI to help developers write code.