apple neural engine

During a Bloomberg Technology conference in June last year, Android co-founder Andy Rubin expressed his belief that computing platforms were due for a major revolution in the coming years. When asked what he believed the next platform would be, he said: “It’s about data and people training AI systems to learn“. Rubin clearly believes that AI will be the dominant computing platform very soon.

If recent developments are anything to go by, many of the industry’s titans seem to agree with him. Now, Apple Inc. (NASDAQ:AAPL) is reportedly working on developing a dedicated chip to power AI on its devices.

Apple To Catch Up With Google And Amazon

Like with so many tech innovations in the past decade, Apple was one of the first to bring consumer AI to the mainstream. The launch of the AI digital assistant, Siri, back in 2011 was received with a lot of fanfare and hype. However, Siri did not turn out to be the success story that Apple had hoped, and was relegated as a novelty gimmick.

However, Siri’s relative failure was followed by newer AI based digital assistants from competitors like Amazon and Google. In contrast to Siri, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant have not only been a runaway success, but their popularity continues to explode.

Apple is now looking fully committed to AI. This is evident by the following:-

  • They are developing a separate “Apple Neural Engine” chipset to power AI in future devices specifically iPhones and iPads. This AI chip will be able to handle facial recognition, speech recognition, and and the iPhone’s predictive keyboard.
  • They have made several high-profile acquisitions of AR companies like PrimeSense and FlyBy. AR as a technology is intrinsically tied to AI research and development.
  • Apple recently joined the “Partnership on AI” research group, which already comprises of giants like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Facebook and IBM.
  • In October of last year, Apple hired Carnegie Mellon University’s Ruslan Salakhutdinov as their director of AI research.
  • In February 2017, Apple announced its plans to expand its Seattle office to focus on AI and machine learning research.
  • Apple also broke tradition to allow its AI researchers to publish AI research papers to attract and retain the best talent. This decision goes against the very ethos of the company and shows just how much they value the potential of AI.

Why This Move By Apple Is So Important

Apple’s decision to develop a new chip for its devices has various short-term and long-term implications for the company and the industry.

Short Term Benefits

  • Most AI based digital assistants rely on computing servers to process data. Shifting some of the compute workload to the dedicated chip can help improve speed and efficiency.
  • Local AI compute works also opens up the possibility of digital assistants working offline, albeit in a limited capacity.
  • Current Apple devices handle AI processes on two separate chipsets. The load is divided between the microprocessor and the GPU. A dedicated AI chip will allow Apple to improve battery life on its devices. This will also improve general performance.

Long Term Implications

Artificial Intelligence lies at the core of some very promising nascent technologies. It sits at the heart of Augmented reality, self-driving cars, digital assistants and smart homes. Therefore, it is a very smart move on Apple’s part to commit to its development.

  • AI forms the very basis of Augmented Reality. Apple CEO Tim Cook has already expressed his confidence in the future of AR, and the industry is set for massive growth in the coming years. According to estimates, the AR industry will be worth nearly $83 billion by 2021.
  • Self-Driving cars is another very promising venture where AI research and innovation is of utmost importance. Statista estimates that the autonomous vehicle market will be worth $42 billion by 2025.
  • AI powered virtual digital assistants (VDA) like Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant are slowly gaining steam. The Virtual Assistant market may be worth as much as $3.6 billion by 2020.
  • AI is now playing an increasing role in smartphone security measures like 3D sensing for depth perception. Other security applications also include facial recognition, iris scanning and more. These technologies can eventually even be ported to home security in smart homes.

Google And Amazon Retain The Advantage

Despite the big moves Apple is making in AI, Google and Amazon remain firmly in the lead. A while back we reported how Amazon’s Alexa is strongly in the lead in the VDA market, with Google Assistant coming in second. With new competitors like Bixby emerging, Apple and Siri have their work cut out for them.

As far as machine learning is concerned Google have shown that they are industry leaders in that respect. Their Deepmind division’s AlphaGo AI recently defeated world no.1 “Go” player, Ke Jie, in what is a seminal moment for AI development. This only proves how far Google have come with AI and machine learning research.

A dedicated AI chip is not something new to the industry either. Qualcomm’s newest Snapdragon 835 processor has a dedicated module for AI. Google has its own Tensor Processing Unit (TPU) hardware, which they used in their AlphaGo AI.

Takeaways

  • The AI competition is heating up, with Apple now entering the field. With their immense financial backing and plethora of talent, they represent a threat to Google and Amazon’s dominance.
  • Apple’s new Neural Engine chip will allow for better performing devices and longer battery life. This may help Apple get a leg up on its competitors and revitalise its flagging smartphone sales.
  • AI ties into emerging technologies which will become very lucrative in the coming years. The future of many technology giants may very well hinge on the outcome of the AI race.