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By Associated Press

With sales of Apple's flagship iPhone slowing, the spotlight is on the company's hunt for its next big thing. Apple's annual software developers conference, which kicks off Monday, will be its next big opportunity to show the world what's coming next.

Artificial intelligence, and Apple's wisecracking digital assistant Siri, could play a big role.

Of course, Apple is expected to unveil a number of other advances — software improvements for its iPhones, iPads and Mac computers and a possible overhaul of its music service chief among them. After Apple's dust-up with the FBI earlier this year over iPhone security, it might also announce new security measures to protect users' data.

But AI is emerging as a major new tech battleground, one where Apple may have some ground to make up. Siri made a big splash when it debuted five years ago. But as other tech giants jockey to build intelligent "chat bots" and voice-controlled home systems capable of more challenging artificial-intelligence feats, Siri at times no longer seems cutting edge.

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On Monday, Apple is expected to demonstrate an upgrade to Siri's smarts. The main question is whether it will be enough to keep up with rivals like Amazon, Google, Facebook and others who are racing to create digital services that consumers will find indispensable for shopping, chatting, controlling other appliances and simply getting through their daily lives.

Apple declined comment on plans for Siri. Last fall, however, Apple acquired a startup that makes AI software specifically for mobile devices, and another that helps computers carry on extensive voice conversations. And tech news sites have reported Apple may loosen its restrictions on Siri's ability to work directly with other companies' software. That could enable Siri to book a restaurant reservation on command, or order a ride from a car service, rather than show a link to an app like Open Table or Uber and requiring the user to do the rest.

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Experts say the quality of Apple's software and online services is increasingly critical to maintaining its popularity with consumers.

Services like Siri, Apple Music and Apple Pay add significant value to the iPhone and other Apple devices, Dawson said. "They're important to keeping the Apple ecosystem attractive."