Physicist, Startup Founder, Blogger, Dad

Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Pocket AI from Beijing and Smartphones

I need to replace my old iPhone 6, and, predictably, this led me down the rabbit hole of learning about mobile phones, the mobile industry, and even mobile technologies. Some quick remarks: from the least to most expensive phones, Chinese companies are now competitive with industry leaders like Samsung and Apple. The Chinese market is hyper-competitive: small innovative startups (Oppo, OnePlus, etc.) compete with medium sized entities (e.g., Xiaomi, only recently a small startup itself) and giants like Huawei and Lenovo (Motorola). To gauge the landscape, watch phone reviews by Indian techies (or this guy in Germany), who tend to be very focused on cost performance and have access to handsets not sold in the US.

Here's a short video about OnePlus which also explains a bit about the Shenzhen hardware ecosystem:

Huawei's Kirin 970 chipset includes a dedicated "Neural Processor Unit" (NPU), optimized for the matrix operations used in machine learning. An NPU allows the phone to execute ML code for tasks such as image and voice recognition, language translation, etc. without relying on cloud connectivity. At the moment it is mostly a marketing gimmick, but one can imagine in a few years (perhaps earlier!) the NPU could be as important to the phone experience as the GPU.

Here's a review of the Mate 10 Pro, Huawei's $1k flagship phone, with a brief demo of some of the AI features:

The NPU appears to be based on technology licensed from a small Beijing startup, Cambricon. The founder is an alumnus of the Special Class for Gifted Young, University of Science and Technology of China. I've reviewed many Physics PhD applications from 19 year old graduates of this program. There is an SV bidding war over chip designers in this area, ever since the advent of Google's proprietary TPU (and software package Tensorflow), which accounts for most of its computation at data centers around the world.

Here's a quick demo of text recognition and machine translation from Chinese to English:

Some marketing video about the AI processor:

From cat recognition to Her or Joi? How long? I was recently offered the opportunity to be a beta tester for a startup that is building a smartphone AI assistant. I was intrigued but didn't want to give them access to all of my information...

PS One of the reasons I am leaving iOS for Android is that Google Assistant is getting very good, whereas in my experience Siri is terrible!

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