Competition Heats Up in Mobile AI

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Google designed its own AI chip for its new smartphone — a snub to Qualcomm, the dominant chip vendor in Android phones.
What’s new: Google debuted the Tensor chip last week along with the global release of the new Pixel 6 smartphones. Company executives say the chip is well over four times faster than Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 765G in the Pixel 5, released last year.
How it works: Tensor serves as a power-efficient AI inference engine for on-device functions like voice transcription, language translation, and some image processing features.

  • The chip combines a GPU, CPU, image signal processor, and Tensor processing unit — the proprietary hardware that drives machine learning in Google’s cloud. It also includes a dedicated security chip that manages encryption and thwarts many types of hardware attack.
  • In a demonstration for The Verge, Google snapped a photo of a toddler in motion. The camera automatically shot several photos, recognized the child’s face in each one, and combined them, rendering the face free of motion blur.
  • Google also showed off the chip’s language capabilities, transcribing video voice-overs in real time with no internet connection. In one case, it simultaneously translated a French voice-over into English captions.

Behind the news: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon line of processors underpinned the earliest smartphones from Apple, Blackberry, and a wide variety of Android producers, including Pixel. Google's move to design its own chips mimics Apple's decision to do the same over a decade ago. Both companies continue to use Qualcomm chips for cellular communications.
Why It Matters: Advances in chip design and manufacturing are enticing companies with special processing needs to roll their own. Google tailored Tensor to suit its own AI technology while cutting its dependence on an outside supplier. That’s sure to help it make distinctive products. Look for more of the same from makers of all kinds of AI hardware.
We’re thinking: Google controls the Android operating system. The more tightly it binds Tensor and Android, the greater the incentive it has to sell the chip to phone markers, and the harder it will be for Qualcomm and others to compete on performing inference in Android phones.

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