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Here’s Why Huawei’s Upcoming Phones Could Be Exciting for AI Development

Their new Kirin 970 chipset will include a dedicated neural processing unit dedicated to AI software.

Qualcomm just about dominates the world of Android smartphones — if you’ve got a premium Android device in your hand, it’s almost definitely got a Qualcomm Snapdragon chipset inside. Lately, the most notable exception (besides Samsung Galaxy phones sold in other markets) has been Huawei. The Chinese company designs their own chipsets, which include just about everything that makes a phone tick — the CPU, the graphics chip, the image processor, and even the modem that manages Wi-Fi and LTE connections. At IFA last week, Huawei revealed their latest high-end chipset, and it’s adding one more job responsibility to that list — AI.

Kirin 900 series chipsets are found in Huawei’s best — most recently, the Huawei Mate 9 and P10. We’ve usually found them to be about on par with Qualcomm’s best — they used to lag behind quite a bit in graphics performance, but that gap narrowed substantially with this year’s Kirin 960. At his IFA keynote, Huawei CEO Richard Yu revealed the Kirin 970, which improves on both the CPU and GPU while adding an NPU, or a neural processing unit, that will be dedicated to running artificial intelligence programs.

Using AI on your phone isn’t exactly a new concept — Google Assistant certainly has some AI capabilities, albeit somewhat limited. One reason that today’s AI isn’t the stuff of sci-fi movies is that it takes so much processing power — until now, AI programs for the everyday consumer have been run from cloud servers stocked with tons of huge processors humming away. With these dedicated and more efficient NPUs, we could see more AI programs run from devices themselves.

One industry buzzword we’ve been hearing a lot this year is edge computing. In a way, it’s deserving of being called a buzzword in the most pejorative sense — it simply refers to programs stored on and running from the devices you own. What a novel concept! Snark aside, there’s something to it. Edge computing seems to be referring specifically to programs usually run from the cloud that will be coming to devices, instead. One benefit would be speed — there’s no need for the device to spend time establishing the connection to the cloud server. It’s also more secure for businesses that need to keep sensitive data within company servers.

It sounds appealing in the abstract, but it’s a little more difficult to communicate why we should care. The answer, at least at first, could be improvements to smartphone cameras. AI can be trained to recognize objects in a scene and then trained to recognize which settings work best for which subjects. That’s cool, but in practice, we’ll still probably only see marginal benefits at first.

The Kirin 970 itself having the NPU might not mean all that much — Huawei may introduce camera improvements and perhaps their own digital assistant, but we’d be surprised by something truly transformative right out of the gate. That’s not to say this isn’t an exciting development — with time and development, the hardware will get more powerful and developers will create more inventive software to take advantage of it. It’s a first step, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But hey, maybe it’ll be more! We’re looking forward to trying it out, either way — in addition to the AI improvements and the processor upgrades, Huawei says the modem is theoretically capable of Gigabit LTE speeds, although that’s only notable if you live in an area where Gigabit LTE has been rolled out by your carrier, a process that only started this year.

So, when will we get to try it out? Huawei won’t keep us waiting too long. Yu also mentioned that Huawei will reveal the Mate 10 and Mate 10 Pro, both of which will run on the Kirin 970, on October 16 during an event in Germany.

Check out more of our IFA 2017 coverage right here!